Sunday, 19 December 2010

Fiction Slips into Reality

It really is stranger than fiction when fiction becomes reality. Last week I felt as if I had stepped into a scene from my own novel Gypsies Stop tHere.

The public meeting was to discuss proposals for an inevitable development at Deepcut. The plan is for a ‘rural village’ utilising the footprint of the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut following its disbandment in a couple of years’ time. The process has reached the stage of inviting responses to Surrey Heath Borough Council Draft Strategic Planning Document (SPD) and four design options are offered; briefly linear, ‘one-heart’, ‘two heart’ or High Street based.

The key issues were predictable and understandable: traffic, traffic, traffic, roads, traffic and various pros and cons of the new development. Naturally, as local people, we are extremely anxious about the impact that additional housing, shops and amenities will have on our area. Anyone reading this who is interested in the details can of course follow on

It was when someone queried the possible inclusion of a few Gypsy pitches that I particularly listened up. ‘Here we go’ I thought. And indeed we did.

Firstly the difficulty with which the local Councillor had in addressing this question wins my sympathy. When I give talks to groups, the minute I show signs of siding with the Gypsies and Travellers, hostility mounts. For anyone in local politics, or indeed national politics, this is not a vote-winner and he wants to retain his position. All he could say was that Gypsies had no connection with the area and would not belong, or words to that effect. Of course, they are widely deemed not to belong anywhere and thus it has been through the centuries and, in the case of Romany Gypsies, right across Europe since they left India over 1,000 years ago.

The frustrating thing is that the very people who object exacerbate the ‘problem’ of unauthorised sites. As a rule, those tucked-away sites (how many of you have been on one?) where the amenities are in place and functioning, are kept immaculately and would put many of us householders to shame. I wish I was as tidy! Romany Gypsies take enormous pride in keeping their trailers neat and polished, themselves and their children squeaky clean. I am embarrassed that I have to patronise them in this way by saying this, but it seems it is necessary.

I heard typical unthinking comments that saddened and angered me. One person commented on the possibility of Gypsies being part of the community, along the lines, ‘What! and near a play centre?’ as if this were some plan for a leper colony or establishment for free-range convicts. Someone else commented with words to the effect, ‘Well obviously, this is not something we would want here, is it, everyone?’ Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are human beings who at times may seem outwardly defensive, but are actually so cowed by public opinion, they stick together and rarely appear to defend themselves at such meetings. They may be different in some ways; their old values are strongly towards family loyalty, living close to nature, being self-reliant, resourceful and not relying on the state. Bad press over the years and, arguably, unsightly behaviour of New Age Travellers who have sprung from mainstream society – yes, the likes of you and me - seem to have inculcated a different view in the public consciousness. Of course there are good and bad in all sections of society, but sticking labels on an entire group of people can only be bad – and indeed possibly illegal.

I am not going into all the reasons why this kind of bigoted racism should be a thing of the past; or why this group of people still sometimes chooses to live on the periphery. My books do enough and I give talks to resistant groups of people until I am blue in the face. I see things from the other side; attending Gypsy and Traveller forums; visiting sites where the antiquated drainage system overflows after a storm, and ‘sheds’ used for washing clothes and bathing children are freezing, and so on. For this the people pay rents and taxes – for a bit of hard standing, running water and electricity. Their home they provide themselves. I was invited to go to a workshop in Leatherhead on Thursday addressing issues relating to education of Traveller children; parents want their children to go to school, get qualifications and a good job. People are working very hard now to bring these people in from the cold. You may have seen Lord Avebury’s response to my piece on Pennypot Lane.

I would be pleased to see a small Gypsy site integrated with the new Deepcut proposals. Let us go down in history as being the first to actually welcome (some will say I am back in fiction again) this ethnic group. This is not to promote my books; my involvement has gone way beyond that, but I hope they do help to foster greater understanding. I’ve heard all the arguments during the past seven years or so I’ve been into this subject. It’s time we all stopped pre-judging and showed some humanity.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Making connections

School photos and old friends; TV programme The Young Ones; Gypsies and Travellers; and social networking. To use an awful but apt word – do you see the commonalty, or what links this hodgepodge together?
Last week I met up with three old school friends to visit our Grammar School for celebrations of its 400th year. When we were pupils we had no idea it was so ancient. An exhibition told us something of its history but it was the photos that grabbed us and made us all suddenly come alive as if we’d been injected with something possibly illegal, certainly rejuvenating. Able to reel off names of tennis players, football teams or the best part of an entire row of 1960s schoolchildren in one of those long roll black and white photos, how we laughed!!
Then my husband and I watched the BBC1 programme The Young Ones showing the energising effects of returning certain ageing celebrities to their hey-day, thereby revisiting their former talent. Forget the garish 1975 furnishings; that was unreal. But the joyful feelings of reliving younger days and a world to which they thoroughly belonged was very heartening to witness.
An ageing neighbour once said to me wisely, ‘The more you do, the more you can do!’ I certainly do not feel old yet but I shall remember all of this and fend off age for as long as is feasible. It is vital to enjoy the present and look forward to the future but dipping into the past can offer great therapy and, as this TV experiment showed, energy.
At Gypsy events where I have toddled along with my books, people from that community are constantly seeking out their past, their ancestors. ‘Are your books about Kay so-and-so?’ they will ask, unsure about the value of fiction. Old photographs will draw a crowd, like wasps to jam, seeking out faces and memories, the pull of family tugging so strong that they fight hard to preserve it.
Maybe the link between the school reunion, the TV programme, and the Gypsy community welded firm by family, is that instinctive sense of belonging; everyone, young or old, knows what it means to be part of a group or family. That same vital, tribal instinct, sometimes unfulfilled in ‘real life’, is what social networking is often about. Connectedness. There we have it.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

What's it like doing a book-signing?

There are book-signings and well, there are book-signings. You know what I mean. Any famous writer used to sitting at a table simply signing a pile of books, with a smile, will not expect to have to exchange more than a couple of pleasantries. However, I’ve heard various stories about how some naturally reclusive writers avoid them if it involves engaging with customers in a bookshop, hiding, or even delegating a partner to do the talking. Also, I am told that on rare occasions some celebrated authors now turn up expecting a queue and – no one is there.
Well I turn up and sure enough, no one is there! But soon customers enter the bookshop and if they don’t come across to me I bowl across to them and we small-talk. They look at my books, we chat some more, and more often than not they buy one or maybe both of my books. They wave at me as they leave the shop like old friends. I love it.
Often mistaken for a Waterstone’s bookseller (though neither informed nor uniformed) I am asked such questions as ‘where is the self-help section?’ or ‘do you sell maps?’ and some customers offer to pay me direct for my books, thrusting a tempting £20 note my way, but sadly I must direct them to the sales counter. After all, every sale will help to notch up my Nielsen’s stats.
As I am often a stranger to customers, it is a joy when one comes in and says, ‘I’m reading one of your books at the moment, got it from the library,’ or ‘saw you in the paper’; ‘think I’ve heard you on the radio’; or ‘saw your books on Amazon’. I have no wish to be famous or a celebrity (honestly!!!) but it does give me a warm tingle, up to a point, that a few random booklovers know of me and my books.
Booksales are erratic. In some signings I have struggled, it has to be said. There was one where I was placed right next to the entrance and customers just breezed past and had no idea I was there, even less why.
Sometimes customers are focused, blinkered and I am apparently totally invisible. They look above and around me, and walk past, sometimes taking a detour to avoid my table where I wait to meet and greet. People can be intent on finding something specific: parents with children, combing through the Kids’ Section, or men who ‘never read novels’; others who only ever read fantasy/thrillers/crime or travel/historical/biographies and so on. One man last Saturday said he did not want to look at my books. ‘I never read books written by a woman,’ he said, to which I replied, ‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that!’ ‘I’ll say it again then,’ was his crisp retort. By sharp contrast another lovely gentleman was gently browsing and I asked him if he read fiction at all. ‘Yes, I certainly do,’ he said and immediately came across to see my display, which he hadn’t noticed. When he saw the titles a broad grin spread across his face like sunshine. ‘I used to be a Gypsy Liaison Officer, as part of my job. I have a lot of sympathy for these people,’ he said. We talked for about half an hour and he was almost reading my books before he had paid for them! It sure does take all sorts.
I spend a couple of hours in Waterstone’s shops most Saturdays, feeling very much at home among the bookshelves by now. The booksellers are lovely – always so welcoming, helpful and supportive. Gypsies Stop tHere I launched in 2008 with a signing in Camberley, then locally at Woking, Farnham and Basingstoke, also venturing to Borders shops in Brighton and Southampton. With the new one, No Gypsies Served, again launched in Camberley, I have been to Epsom, Reading, Windsor, Bracknell, Watford, Basingstoke, Farnham and still have many more lined up – another visit to Windsor where people are so lovely, Brighton, Andover, Woking and Guildford and who knows where?
Next stop Brighton! 31 July Saturday afternoon – apparently they, arguably, get up later than the rest of the country.

Would love to hear of others' experiences of book-signings from either side of the fence ...

Friday, 9 July 2010

More than I expected - meeting Judy Astley!

It was good to go along to a local library the other evening and hear a well-known author, namely Judy Astley, talk about her life as a writer. Her books are undoubtedly in the genre of commercial women’s fiction and very popular – all 16 of them!

What was so curious to me was how much of what she said about her past resonated with me. We are of similar age I would guess but here’s a few more aspects that jumped out:

· Memories of early schooldays: would prefer to be ‘kept in’ writing a ‘composition’ than being in the playground. No good at sport. Absolutely!
· Always had her head in a book. Oh me too! Loved Enid Blyton before moving on to other things. Yes, yes, I used to devour them greedily.
· Favourite Christmas present would be – well, what do you think? Books. I remember requesting a set of 5/- book tokens. It was all I really wanted.
· Going along to the library. That’s me, too. On my bike, saddle-bag stuffed with books.
· A’ levels English and French in common. University days – Judy did English – I was never that good at decisions so I did a mixture of English, French, Sociology and Politics. Both did secretarial courses too and to this day appreciate the skills it gave us, although forever had to fight the maxim ‘once a typist, always a typist’.
· Made clothes – I’d always done this, first for teddies and dolls, then for myself in teenage years. Knitted, sewn from paper patterns or made up, crocheted (oh those holey dresses of the 60s!). Judy went as far as becoming a dress designer and got involved in Liberty’s. I did sell a couple of knitting patterns to magazines but never went any further. And patchwork. Yes we both did that as well! Maybe it’s just our era! And – listen up – we both sold bags to a shop in Oxford!!
· Writing, writing, writing … always there in the background. Judy started at a tender age to send off stories to magazines and learned what rejection meant. I began writing stories when stuck in remote corner of Ireland in my early twenties, did not submit anything until later. Did get published regularly in Romance, True Story and My Story – and Christian Herald!! But in between many were rejected.
· We both went to writing classes. I did The Writing School course by correspondence and went to local classes too (where I met @MarikaCobbold !). Both learned the importance of writing for a defined audience or readership, which underpinned my work in PR and marketing and writing articles freelance.
· At work, freelance freedoms and flexibility suited us both. Judy was sometimes caught out writing at work when employed (love this)! I had a huge number of jobs, variably employed and self-employed. My CV is a nightmare - but I was more inclined to stare out of the window, restless and fidgety, when working for a company or other organisation. (Perhaps if you are a bit creative you cannot bear to be managed? Discuss!)
· Judy won a short story competition and her brilliance clearly shone through! Her first novel was accepted for publication (without an agent – impressive) and the rest … is history. Writing commercially successful books she could earn her living by writing – bliss. Now she has an agent and 16 novels under her belt. I have temporarily given up pursuing the agent-publisher trail and decided to get on with writing novels in my retirement and self-publish. It does not provide me with a living (certainly not, says hubby) but I am writing what I enjoy and other people seem to like reading them.
· Another point on which we differ. I asked Judy which gave her most pleasure - the ‘process’ of writing or the ‘result’! Without hesitation she said ‘finishing the book’! I actually really enjoy the writing bit and feel quite bereft when I reach the end. Yes, it is immensely satisfying to see the final product, of course, but for me, not the main reason for writing. Odd perhaps, but true.

It was so good to meet her – along with two other writer friends and, with much in common, I hope we may meet again some day. Now I must go get her books from the library!!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A taste of novel No Gypsies Served

Foreword by the Author

No Gypsies Served is a sequel and prequel to Gypsies Stop tHere but both books can standalone. Like Gypsies Stop tHere, it is fiction, a story to entertain. So, someone asked me, “It’s not the truth then?” This was a difficult one to answer.

The story, the characters, even the places are made up. Dunstan is not related to anyone with the surname Smith and Appley Green is not on any map! But certainly I have listened to real life anecdotes, read factual books and consulted web sites, all of which helped form the backdrop of the novel. Issues relating to social injustices, ethnic identity, opinions, laws of the land, alleged crime – the list is long – do exist, however. Some aspects are more factual than others: for example, the snippets you will read from O NEVO DROM are real.
(Romani on-line magazine

There again, reality can be dreary; a daily diary, recording raw, mundane detail, may neither highlight a meaningful message nor make compelling reading! Some scenes or events in the story have been inspired by what I have heard people say. Some have sprung from my imagination and I have striven to create these in the spirit of what I believe to be authentic.

For sure you cannot please all of the people all of the time, but I have tried to be fair and to listen to all sides. In Gypsies Stop tHere a divide lies between Gypsies and non-Gypsies. No Gypsies Served touches on a three-way stalemate between Romany or English Gypsies, Irish Travellers and non-Gypsies; although this is not meant to imply that harmony cannot or does not exist between these groups. No Gypsies Served also shows how history can throw light on current events.

I have heard Gypsies describe themselves as ‘proud’, ‘secretive’ and ‘misunderstood’ and must confess that the first two traits do stand in the way of attempting to rectify the third. I can understand, however, that because of past and present inhumanity towards them, many are mistrustful. I thank all those who have helped me.

No Gypsies Served is peppered with reminders of possible consequences of a Gypsy or Traveller leaving their community to join mainstream society. It is so easy for non-Gypsies to say that Gypsies and Travellers should all live in houses and fit in with everyone else.

Of course, there are many other happenings in both these books. The relationship between Kay and Dunstan is perhaps the vital theme and I know the various interconnecting storylines in an English village captivate a wide readership. I hope that includes you. Happy reading!

© Miriam Wakerly March 2010

Monday, 19 April 2010

When is a sale not a sale?

A word on self-publishing sales

My official sales figures are much less than my actual sales. Official book sales figures – that you see quoted in the bestsellers list – are managed by Nielsen Book Data. All sales that are logged through the ‘system’ ie the booksellers’ tills plus Amazon sales are totted up.
However when you self-publish you are both author and publisher. With my publisher hat firmly on my head, I get an order from a shop for say 20 books, so that for me is a sale of 20 books. They have not yet sold in the shop and do not register officially as a sale until they do.
Moreover some small bookshops are not linked in to Nielsen Book Scan statistics; so any sale through them does not officially register.
Also if I am out and about giving a talk, or attending an event of some kind and I sell a few books, it won’t be recorded as an official sale, but I certainly count those as sales. And sometimes I supply direct – for example to local authorities who use them in the education service.
You can only view sales figures of your own books if you subscribe to Nielsen Book Scan service, which did cause murmurs of protest from authors at a seminar I attended a few weeks ago. However, I guess most larger publishers can easily bear the cost of that and one cannot expect a service requiring both people, time and technology for free.
If you self-publish you get the profit – that is the difference between the selling price and the price of producing the book, less discount which varies from say, 25% - 60%. Of course, there are other overheads, like postage, couriers, travel, publicity and so on; so with your business head also firmly screwed in under that hat, you need to watch those costs carefully, or you would inevitably end up with a financial loss.
I have heard, anecdotally, that some self-publishers using digital print on demand, where the unit cost is relatively high, have ended up having to pay Amazon to sell their book! Can this be true?
© Miriam Wakerly

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

On BBCSurrey breakfast show

This is just a copy and paste link through to Surrey Breakfast show on Monday 12 April with Nick Wallis. He interviewed me about ten minutes from the end of the three hour show. On iPlayer that amounts to just over a centimetre from the end!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

My book launch 'speech'

I have had some kind of cold-flu-virus thing that has left me with a very flaky voice. People who know me well know that I am prone to coughing fits, which would make speaking tonight extremely risky! To cancel would have been difficult and disappointing so I decided to go ahead with this plan B in mind. Thank you and many apologies for not being able to speak to you myself. I have handed my notes to the very lovely John Hockley who is West Surrey Rural Communities Officer, has worked with Gypsies and Travellers for around 27 years – and has already read the book!

“Thank you so much for coming. If I had to define my kind of personal paradise, I think some key elements are here tonight – to be surrounded by books and so many people I recognise and a glass of wine! Welcome to everyone, those I know and a few I don’t. Family, friends, neighbours, people from the Travelling community, writers, members of the National Women’s Register (NWR), U3A, the allotment(!), Rushmoor Writers and the novel group, Society of Authors and Windsor Bookswap – and various other local people. Also some Twitter folk I’ve never met before but feel I know quite well! more about some of you later, maybe even mentioning names – this is a ‘hook’ to keep your attention … (dot dot dot !)

As a very young child I would put my hands over my eyes to hide, believing this rendered me invisible. Not that unusual perhaps – even one of our English Setters does the same thing with her paws! But then as a young schoolchild, the day the school photographer was due to arrive I would rush away to hide behind the coats in the cloakroom. Less normal perhaps!! I was very shy. My point is that many writers – and I heard one say the same thing quite recently – take to writing because they feel at an early age that they can be more creative and imaginative on paper than vocally. The irony of this is that once you produce a book, you find yourself constantly having to stand up in front a sea of faces to talk about it!! But tonight makes that an absolute pleasure – except I find myself unable to actually speak! I am so sorry about that.

A quick word about the book then!
Most of you know that my first book, Gypsies Stop tHere, as the title suggests, is something to do with Gypsies stopping, not being allowed to stop and so forth. I think most of you here have read it but if not, you can always read No Gypsies Served first. No problem – they standalone although they are connected. But you are allowed to buy a signed copy of Gypsies Stop tHere tonight as well!
No Gypsies Served, as its title suggests, goes back in time, events of the past throwing light on the present. It takes in also the relationship between Romany or English Gypsies and Irish Travellers, looking at this in historical context – recent history. It tries to answer some bothersome questions. For example: Why is there a mismatch in peoples’ minds between the old traditional romantic picture of a Gypsy in his wagon etc, and the modern image many people have? And how come that that second perception is so far removed from the Gypsies and Travellers I meet at events and in their own homes? Why would most Gypsies and Travellers choose not to live in a house, if they had that choice? Not going to say too much about it now – this is no time for a lecture! I hope the book helps, through entertaining storytelling, to answer questions such as these and more.

Now for the Oscar Bafta bit … the many thank-yous.

Special thanks to: Waterstone’s for making this wonderful gathering possible, for providing and organising when I know they are so short of time. Special thanks to Jan Russell.
Basil Burton, a Romany Gypsy, who at the age of 88 works tirelessly in support of his people and has driven up from deepest Dorset to be here this evening. I do appreciate this. He has helped me along the way checking over what I have written and, fortunately for me, has a very good memory of times gone by!
Other people who helped me in my research – so many not here this evening, eg Prof Thomas Acton, Dr John Coxhead and many other people – you can see who they are, and their comments, in the front of the book and in this leaflet.
John Hockley is here! West Surrey Rural Communities Officer who has worked with the Gypsy and Traveller community for over 25 years. Thank you John, also Ann Wilson and Charmaine Valler from Surrey Community Action, for their help.
My daughter Erica, who by day is a wallpaper designer and producer, but under cover of darkness found time to design both lovely, deceptively simple, covers. You can tell she actually read the books beforehand! I get many complimentary comments about the covers. They are, so they say, all about genre – to help readers gauge what they are going to get. So that it does what it ‘says on the can’. So this was not easy, for my books do not slip easily into a genre – say, romantic fiction, mystery-crime, historical, typical village-type story – yet they contain elements of all of these.
My husband for his support, not least of which is financial since – contrary to popular belief, very few published authors actually make a half-decent living from it. As most people know, writing novels is my retirement project and something that I’ve actually wanted to do from a very young age. Thanks to Steve also for his help with proof-reading and, though I think he still wonders what on earth I am doing up in my study for so many hours; for his regular if not constant reminders to turn off the Internet to save the planet. Probably not easy living with someone writing a novel who, by definition, tends to drift off into another world for long periods of time!
My local writer and reader friends, many of whom are here tonight – for their support by way of both encouragement and criticism, absolutely invaluable prior to publication. Rushmoor Writers and its offshoot the novel group, and my special writer friends. They know who they are!

Thought of changing my surname to ‘Awake Early’ - Awakerly – it has an alarmingly alert ring to it! but would have the added advantage of putting it at the top end of the alphabet on the shop and library bookshelves. With over 100,000 new titles being published every year in the UK alone, visibility on these shelves is a hard-won privilege!

So if you do enjoy No Gypsies Served then please don’t keep this to yourself. Keep the book to yourself, of course, but not your liking of it! Writers and publishers have to persuade other branches of Waterstone’s to stock their books. It does not happen automatically. So tonight with your help I hope we can give a healthy kick-start to make this happen. But if you could tell that cousin in Dundee, or old school-friend in Cornwall, (it doesn’t have to be that specific!! but you get the gist) friends, colleagues – really all booklovers and readers you can think of – well, you have no idea how helpful this would be. You cannot overestimate the value of good old word of mouth – we can spread awareness and hopefully get more books into more shops around the country. Take a couple of the leaflets with you. We all love to browse and pick a book. Well, bookshops do need our continuing support – what with the competition of Amazon and the rapid rise of e-books. Remember the words of that song ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ (not that Waterstone’s in Camberley is going anywhere!!) Libraries too – it helps if you and your friends ask for books in libraries, then they will order them in.

By the way, each book purchased comes with a most desirable and virtually indestructible bookmark (may not be dishwasher proof).

I am so grateful for your support and very touched that so many of you are here. Looking at this crowd here perhaps it’s as well that not everyone could come …!! You don’t look like a shy lot, but please if you haven’t spoken to the person next to you just ask them what their connection is with this evening and you may hear something interesting! Thank you again for coming and to wish it luck may I raise a toast to No Gypsies Served and all who sail with her!!”

Friday, 12 February 2010

‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’?

A simple question often asked. But how complicated the answer!!

First of all there are many groups of, let’s say, ‘Travellers’. There are Circus and Fairground people, generally referred to as ‘Showpeople’ often of Romany origin. There are New or New Age Travellers – largely non-Gypsies from mainstream society, who opted out, particularly in the 1960s, 70s … took to the road full of dreams but with very little back up by way of traditions to help them live, obtain food, prepare meals, eat, sleep, wash themselves and their clothes, earn a living, get married, give birth, bring up children, care for their sick and elderly – on the road in a caravan, trailer or wagon. A daunting challenge when you come to think about it – not the easy option after all!

There are ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Scottish’ Gypsies – probably with Romany roots but who have been here for so long they differentiate according to where they best belong. There are Romany Gypsies, and what used to be called ‘didakois’, not usually regarded a very friendly term, where a Romany has intermarried and had a child with a non-Gypsy.

Irish Travellers, not surprisingly, come from Ireland. Many Irish emigrated to England in the 1850s and there was another phase of movement after World War II. It is believed by some academics, however, that some Romanis once travelled to Ireland and became ‘Irish Travellers’. Did I say it was confusing? True Irish Travellers have different origins, going back maybe four or five hundred years. Some were known as Tinkers … You really need to read my second novel, No Gypsies Served … Romany Gypsies have their origins in India … this goes back over a thousand years and they made their way, through a mix of persecution and seeking a living, across Europe branching out into various countries, finally arriving in Great Britain around 500 years ago.

So they have been with us for a long time.

Irish Travellers and Showpeople do not like to be referred to as Gypsies – for them it is a derogatory term. Many Romanies are very happy to be called Gypsy, proud of their heritage, especially the younger generation where there is a resurgence of their culture. Some Gypsies of all ages, however, will hide their ethnic identity because of potential discrimination and bullying against them. Some of the older generation can remember a time in their youth when the term Gypsy was associated with insults, so are somewhat unsure.

There are also, of course, Roma in Europe and particular groups within this – the Sinti for example.

People ask, 'But what about Travellers who live in houses? How can they be Travellers?' A good question, but if a Gypsy or Traveller belongs to an ethnic group, then where they live is immaterial; and other aspects of their deep-rooted culture give them a special identity.

Romany Gypsies in turn have a term for non-Gypsies - gorgio, which has various spellings; and the Irish Travellers would call a non-Gypsy a buffer.

This is, in fact, a huge subject. Volumes and theses have been written on the origins, culture and identity of Gypsies and Travellers and it is extremely easy to cause offence, but I hope I am getting the hang of it. I guess if I've got it wrong I'll soon hear about it from someone!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

In defence of the cliché

Some clichés grate, irritate or make you squirm. You want to beg the perpetrator to please blend their imagination and vocabulary to create something with originality and impact. Something to ‘blow your mind’. But I ‘have a soft spot’ for some clichés that have, after all, ‘stood the test of time’, and by that definition, are ‘classic’.

Clichés are, also by definition, overused, some more than others; proverbs, such as ‘All that glitters is not gold’, often moralistic in tone. ‘At the end of the day’ and ‘knock your socks off’ really have to go, so weakened as they are by repetition that they have the power and resonance of a goose-feather.

Strange, yet everyday, clichés leave one pondering on their origins: ‘Apple of my eye’, ‘Armed to the teeth’ ‘The best laid plans of mice and men’ but they leave no doubt as to their meaning. Whereas some have failed to become a classic cliché, in my view, because they are second rate and clumsy, for example: ‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’ or ‘Keep a bad dog with you and the good dogs won’t bite’. I ‘get the message’ but it prompts me to try and offer up a snappy alternative … later.

Some express the same concept with contrasting images: ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’ and others. Others offer history; ‘keep your nose to the grindstone’, ‘the real McCoy’, ‘putting the cart before the horse’.

I would defend crisp clichés (possibly ‘to the hilt’) that encapsulate an emotion or situation and, above all, communicate without any misunderstanding; ‘Abandon ship’ – dramatic, with ethical overtones, short and sharp; ‘To break the ice’- simple and everyone understands it; ‘Burn your bridges’ – concise; ‘Butterflies in my stomach’ – terms like ‘collywobbles’ don’t quite ‘cut the mustard’ and attempts to improve such as ‘snakes writhing in my intestine’ probably would fail. Having said this, any writer ‘worth their salt’ would undoubtedly try and substitute some other metaphor to convey nervous emotion.

I mention the word cliché twice (I think) in my new novel, No Gypsies Served – maybe I use them more often than that! Hopefully, if I do then they are put to good use. The male character begins to pen his life story with the ‘cliché’ ‘My first day at school’. If a cliché is recognised as such I think it makes it more acceptable. It shows the speaker, or writer, is cliché-aware. The other cliché is a highly recognisable situation – but you would need to read (appreciate the subtle invitation!) the book to see this as it occurs near the end of the novel.

What’s your take on the best of our clichés? If you look up this website you may find your day will disappear as you wonder what there would be left to say without them. (apparently, allegedly, these are almost entirely attributed to the United States)

Afternote: Listening to radio news a couple of days ago, in the first minute: 'defining moment'; 'meltdown'; 'on the cusp'; and 'brought to its knees'. But are these clichés?

©Miriam Wakerly