Weird Words 5

The fifth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Raccoon

Thanks to Vijaya for suggesting this word—it’s one of her favourites.

Raccoon… hmm, makes me think of Guardians of the Galaxy and, unlike Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, a non-irritating CGI anthropormorphic animal named Rocket.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a raccoon is a small nocturnal carnivore native to North America. According to Merriam-Webster, the word derives from the native American language Virginia Algonquian, also known as Powhatan. According to Wikipedia, that language became extinct around the 1790s when its speakers were forced to switch to English.

That makes me feel sad.

Noisome

Meaning highly obnoxious or objectionable; often used to describe a disgusting smell.

It’s one of those words ripe for being misused by the careless writer who chucks it into a sentence without double-checking its meaning.

The noisome explosions surrounded me while I cowered in the foxhole.

Nope. Unless, perhaps, you’re describing the rapid expulsion of air from someone’s backside, or a hand grenade lobbed into a cesspit, explosions are rarely likely to be noisome.

Kerfuffle

Another of those words I love because they sound so much like their meaning. Does a disturbance or commotion sound like a kerfuffle to you? Of course it does.

It apparently comes from a combination of ancient Scots and Gaelic. Probably. It typically refers to a commotion caused by an argument, though can apply to most disturbances.

Since I’m claiming it to be one of my favourite words, I checked to see whether I’d used it in any of my published fiction. Lo and behold, it appears in my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls.

Although the rear wall blocked out the Dead Lights at ground level, they were bright enough to light up the garden like a flare and I was vaguely aware of a kerfuffle coming from the disturbed animals and poultry as I sprinted past them.

See—told you I loved it.

 

That’s all for Part 5. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

In Praise of Paper

A light-hearted post today—in these days of gloom and uncertainty, I’m increasingly drawn to writing blog posts tending towards frothiness. Cappuccino rather than espresso.

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t about bashing e-readers. Indeed, I have an e-reader. It’s a Kindle Paperwhite and I love it to bits. It holds umpteen books, it’s lightweight and easy to hold when I’m horizontal, and, best of all, it is backlit so I can read in the early hours without disturbing the other half.

So what is this post about? Well, a little while ago I was buying something on Amazon for £16. Postage and packing would cost £4-odd, but I could get free p & p if I bought something else to bring the total past £20. It was a bit of a no-brainer to look for something around the £4 mark and, in effect, get the second item free.

If you, too, are an avid reader, you’ll know to which department I headed in search of a £4 item. I found something straight away—a small Penguin paperback of essays by George Orwell.

Here’s a pic of the book next to my Kindle. And, yes, that’s one of my books on the e-reader screen. Why miss an opportunity for a little self-plugging, eh? Goodness knows, I’m rubbish at doing that most of the time.

The caption sums up my feelings towards e-books and their more traditional counterparts. Some people say they will never use an e-reader; others that they will only use an e-reader and never return to paper books. Me, I enjoy both. Much as I love my Kindle, it will never completely replace traditional books for me.

I tend to alternate between reading a book on my Kindle and reading a paperback, but of late I’ve been reading more of the former. No particular reason other than the books I’ve been wanting to read next happen to be on my Kindle.

So when the Orwell book arrived from Amazon, it had been a few weeks since I’d last handled a paperback. And a great deal longer since I’d held a brand new one.

I imagine most book lovers will recognise how I react to holding a new book for the first time:

– gaze at it for long moments, slowly absorbing the cover design

– run my fingers over the cover; if, as is the case with the Orwell book, the cover is embossed, my fingers will linger as I relish the ridges and furrows, silky to the touch

– turn the book over and absorb the back cover and description

– (this, and the next, are the ones that people who have little time for books don’t get) raise the book to my nose and inhale deeply

–  riffle the pages, stop at random and thrust my nose between the pages to inhale once more

There is nothing quite like the pleasure to be derived from holding a brand new book. (Indeed, from holding old, well-read books, too, though the sensations involved there are more to do with an appreciation of age and mustiness, and being in the presence of something much-treasured.)

While the aesthetic pleasure in e-books lies almost entirely in the reading device itself—which, of course, looks the same no matter what you’re reading on it—paper books differ in their dimensions, type and size of font, cover design, and more. An e-reader strips back a book to make it all about its contents; I’m unlikely to ever derive pleasure purely from the look of an e-book. By contrast, I can greatly enjoy simply looking at and holding a paper book, never mind reading its contents.

Take the Orwell book. It’s small in height and width and thickness, like a well-padded pamphlet, and weighs very little, a pleasant surprise when you’re accustomed to holding weightier tomes. I’ve already mentioned the silky feel of the embossed cover—it really is something I delight in touching. I love the classic Penguin design of the cover: simplistic and iconic. And it has that new-book scent that always reminds me of the smell given off by roads and pavements when it rains for the first time in a while. The smells aren’t the same, as such, but similar for their distinctiveness.

I’d like to say that the scent of a book is of crisp paper and ink, but they’re more likely to have been laser-printed these days. Still, there’s something special about thrusting your hooter between the pages of a new book and inhaling. I’m not going over the top and claiming this to be akin to a religious experience, but it nevertheless stirs something spiritual in me.

“Guru Sam, tell us the secret of life.”
“Certainly, my acolytes. Go forth and buy a new book. Open it and breathe in through your nose. Slowly. Deeply. Therein lies true enlightenment.”

Yeah, I agree; that’s enough wittering for one post. Whatever your preferred medium, happy smell— er, reading!

Weird Words 4

The fourth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Definitely

One of those words that is so frequently misspelt that I have to pause to think when writing it. I know Facebook and Twitter are hardly the measure of society’s literacy standards, but it’s rare indeed to encounter it spelt correctly on social media. How often have you seen it written as ‘definately’? Or, my favourite and the result, no doubt, of that curse of modern technology, the autocorrect function:

‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, yes, defiantly.’

I often find myself reading the post as if the writer meant what they wrote—there’s something almost noble about being defiant in the face of the latest photograph of someone’s dinner.

A good way to remember how to spell it correctly (at least, the way I remember) is to pronounce it in your head as ‘dee-fie-night-lee’, or to remember that it’s the opposite of ‘infinitely’. Best—defiantly best—not to rely on autocorrect.

Serendipity

One of my favourite words in the entire English language. I didn’t even know it existed until one day I happened across it by happy accident.*

A former work colleague—I hope she’ll forgive me if she ever reads this—came across the word for the first time when taking down a customer’s address over the telephone. The customer had called his house ‘Serendipity’. My colleague wrote the address as ‘seven dippety sendipity’. For years afterwards, I kept the yellow Post-it note on which she’d written the address and brought it out for a giggle whenever I needed cheering up.

Collywobbles

If you’ve read my previous posts in this series, you’ll know I love words that sound like their definition. Meaning stomach pain or queasiness usually brought on by intense anxiety or nervousness, ‘collywobbles’ is another beautifully descriptive word completely in harmony with its definition.

(At the risk of destroying the magic, Merriam-Webster says the word probably derives from a transformation of the New Latin term for the disease cholera, cholera morbus, to make it sound less sinister. Hmm, that’s one of those things I’d prefer, on the whole, not to know.)

 

That’s all for Part 4. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

*see what I did there?

 

Twinkies

Making the Mysterious Mundane

If the title and subtitle don’t already tell you, this week’s post is not profound. Indeed, you might say it’s light-hearted. Frivolous, even.

Nothing wrong with a bit of frivolity now and then. It can provide a small but welcome distraction from the deadly serious stuff that’s been pretty much the story of 2020 thus far. So here’s a bit of froth about Twinkies.

I’ve mentioned them before in a post about the differences between British and American English: What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

For those who don’t want to read the entire piece, this is what I said about Twinkies (‘SK’ being Stephen King):

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

For any non-Americans looking in who don’t know what they are, Twinkies are a cake, of sorts. A snack-sized, yellowish sponge filled with synthetic cream.

They feature in the film Zombieland, where Woody Harrelson’s character is constantly on the look-out for them. (Interesting aside: the Twinkie he consumes in the film is, apparently, not a real one but a vegan version mocked up for him. The real ones contain ingredients unsuitable for vegans; some would argue they contain ingredients unsuitable for humans.)

After first encountering them in a Stephen King novel in my early teens, I spent many years knowing that Twinkies exist, but without knowing what they are. As anyone with an active imagination will appreciate, we often picture the unknown as more exciting and exotic than the reality. I don’t now recall what I imagined a Twinkie to be, but it wasn’t a plump finger of highly processed, sugary sponge filled with fake cream. When later, much later, I learned the truth, it came as a bit of a let-down, but still my curiosity wasn’t fully assuaged. That would only happen if I one day ate a Twinkie.

I’ve since visited the States a few times, but on each occasion, there being too many other delights to sample (such as a corned beef sandwich in Katz’s deli in Lower East Side Manhattan—yum, yum), I completely forgot to hunt down a Twinkie. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally tried one for the first time.

During lockdown, one of my daughters decided to order a delivery of confectionary from a place that stocks products from the US. Yep, including Twinkies. She ordered a box of ten for her and her boyfriend; one was enough for me.

The most satisfying part of the experience was getting to set eyes on a Twinkie at long last, to hold one and peel off the cellophane wrapper. Actually consuming it? Not so much.

Hmm, how best to describe it? Well, it was edible. Too sweet, cloyingly so, for my palate. Did it leave me wanting more? Nope, I can’t say it did, though I guess I’d happily consume them during the Apocalypse.

So more than forty years after first hearing about them, after many moments spent idly wondering what they are, I’ve eaten a Twinkie. Despite it not being an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat, I’m glad to have done it. A small part of my teenage curiosity has been satisfied.

Now to find out what this sex thing is all about…

Weird Words 3

The third in a series of posts taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Minuscule

A film with this title recently premiered on Sky Movies—perhaps I ought to get out more (tricky though that is in today’s world), but I was gratified to see it spelt correctly. Mind, it’s understandable why we so often see it written as ‘miniscule’. In its adjectival form, it means ‘very small; tiny’ and so people will, wrongly though not unreasonably, associate it with the prefix ‘mini’, and words such as ‘minimal’ and ‘miniature’. Merriam-Webster, while listing ‘minuscule’ as the only correct spelling, notes that some dictionaries accept ‘miniscule’ as a legitimate variant. A case of where enough people get something wrong, it ends up being right?

Jeopardy

One of those words I have to pause and think about before spelling it correctly. There was a time when I couldn’t spell it without looking it up. Then I realised that it takes the same form as ‘leopard’ and I’ve been able to spell it ever since, though I still have to pause and think about it for a moment.

Diphthong

Also known as a gliding vowel, which is a lovely description. It’s the vowel sound found in words like ‘oil’ and ‘loud’ (and, indeed, in ‘sound’ and ‘found’), where the pronunciation changes during the syllable. (Ironically, the word diphthong does not itself contain any diphthongs.) This is one of those words that you might come across occasionally in writing, especially if you are interested in the technicalities of the English language, but won’t often hear spoken, and so there is ample scope for The Avid Reader’s Curse to strike. In my head, I pronounce it ignoring the first ‘h’: dip-thong. Turns out that’s the American pronunciation and the British pronunciation is diff-thong. Who knew?

 

That’s all for Part 3. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

In Dublin’s Fair City

James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Iris Murdoch, Oscar Wilde, Maeve Binchy… The list of notable authors associated with Dublin is impressive.

I’ve made several visits to the city, mostly to watch Wales take on Ireland in the Six Nations and once on a cricket tour (yep, cricket). It’s always struck me as a city that revolves around its pubs. And some fine pubs there are, too.

So, literature, pubs and rugby—what better place to spend a long weekend with five old school friends in honour of us all turning fifty-five?

We chose the weekend of 8th February 2020 because that’s when Wales were playing Ireland in Dublin in this year’s Six Nations. (For those who don’t follow rugby, that’s the main annual rugby union championship in the northern hemisphere.) The downside is that to fly from our local airport, Cardiff, means paying outrageously high fares—the operators hike their prices for that weekend because they know how much we Welsh love our rugby and how many of us follow Wales when they play away.

Our solution was to fly from Cardiff with KLM to Amsterdam and spend a few hours in Schiphol airport, before catching a connecting flight to the Emerald Isle. Nobody (least of all me—the older I get, the more I dislike flying) relished the thought of catching two flights in one day and taking seven hours to reach somewhere a little more than an hour’s flight from Cardiff, but a saving of £300 each sealed the deal.

Flying out was fine. The few hours layover in Schiphol we spent in a pub in the huge terminal building. ‘Huge’ is not an exaggeration—it’s the size of a small town, as we were to have painfully brought home to us during the journey home.

By teatime, we had linked up with the final member of our party (who had flown to Dublin from Heathrow), taken photos of the Welsh rugby team (who’d walked past us in Dublin airport), and found our way to our hotel in the city centre, just off O’Connell Street. By six, we were partaking of the weekend’s first pint of Guinness.

 

We arrived in Dublin on the Thursday. The match would occupy Saturday and we were returning home on Sunday. That left Friday to be filled. Since we are fifty-five, not twenty-five, we were keen to avoid a daytime activity that involved excessive amounts of alcohol. When one of our party, who works for the British Museum, suggested a cultural tour of the city, the rest of us were happy to tag along. On our way to the museums and galleries, we passed the house where Bram Stoker once lived. Dracula being one of the novels I loved as a teenager, I had to take some snaps. Here are a few combined.

I won’t bore you with details of the entire weekend—this is a writing blog, after all—but suffice it to say that there was laughter and reminiscing and Guinness aplenty. Much as you’d expect when six lifelong friends get together again after a while apart. That’s the thing with good friends: it doesn’t really matter how long you spend apart; when you all meet up again, you merely pick up where you left off.

Here’s a snap I took of the boys outside St Stephen’s Green in the city centre. They look like an ageing rock band recreating the cover of one of their albums from back in the day.

There is one more writing-related mention. On Sunday morning, we braved Storm Ciara to stroll over to Temple Bar. One of the settings of my Earth Haven novel, The Beacon, is Dublin. One of the characters makes her temporary home in The Quays pub in post-apocalyptic Temple Bar. I chose it because I have some happy memories of the pub from previous trips.

Since we were right there, it would have been a shame not to pop in for a pint.

Travelling home wasn’t dull. Since we had to once more fly via Schiphol, having to take off and land twice in the teeth of Ciara was, um, interesting. Due to inevitable delays caused by the storm, we landed in Schiphol and were deposited by the airport bus in the concourse with barely fifteen minutes before the departure gate closed for our connecting flight to Cardiff. Not much of a problem, perhaps, except that it turned out we were at least a mile from where we needed to be. Have you ever seen a group of unfit fifty-five-year-olds with a few dodgy knees and hips between them, suffering the effects of a long weekend on Guinness, legging it down seemingly endless stretches of corridor? By the time we made it to the departure gate, panting and sweating, we must have looked as if we’d crossed a desert, not an airport.

We made it home only a couple of hours late. Since we’d been expecting to miss our connecting flight and have to spend the night on the floor in Schiphol, I’ve never been so relieved to land back in Cardiff.

Oh, and Wales lost the rugby in a disappointing performance. It only briefly took the shine off a fantastic weekend.

Enid Bloody Blyton

Five years ago, I was asked by an online magazine, Mass Movement, to pen a short article on the topic ‘What changed your life?’ My piece was featured alongside one by Larry Niven, the author of Ringworld and Lucifer’s Hammer, which I thought was well cool. Anyway, the other day I was having a Facebook conversation with some friends who are reading Enid Blyton’s books to their children. I mentioned that I’d written this article, but when I went to find it to give them a link, it seemed to have disappeared into the ether. Not being one to waste an article, I thought I’d reproduce it here, with a nod to Rob and Ange, and to all parents who start their children off along the joyous path of reading with a spot of Enid.

Enid Bloody Blyton

I have just turned fifty. Bald, with a paunch, and a fondness for beer and rugby. My reading tastes and writing tend towards the dark side. Give me a scary or fantastical film, a bottle of red wine and a bag of chocolates on a Friday night, I’m as happy as a pig in shit.

Darkness, science fiction, horror… why, then, am I penning a short article about that author of insufferably quaint children’s books from another era, Enid Blyton? Enid bloody Blyton? Well, those good folk from Mass Movement asked me for a piece about something that changed my life, and books play a huge part in my life. They mould it, inform it, direct it. The love of books led me, inevitably and irrevocably, to creating my own.

I’ve been writing fiction for around twenty years. Working full-time in a dreary, soul-sucking job allows me to return home of an evening with my brain still functioning and so able to write. Many spare hours are given over to tapping away at the computer keyboard, to the exclusion of most else (I have a very understanding family). Difficult to answer a question about something that changed my life without talking about books. Which brings me back to Enid Blyton.

She’s the one who started it. As soon as I learned to read, I read. Her books, those aimed at very young children of which I was one, were the first. They made a lasting impression that shaped the way I have viewed the world ever since.

The books were Adventures of the Wishing Chair, The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. My well-thumbed copies are around the house somewhere; I passed them on to my daughters. The children in these books have names like Dick and Fanny. Other character names I can still recall all these years later: Chinky, Silky, Moonface, the Saucepan Man. Hell, if I read the books now, I’d see innuendos everywhere and wonder quite what she was stirring into her tea while she wrote them.

But back then I possessed nothing but childhood innocence and a mind like a dry sponge ready to soak up whatever spilled its way. And spill Enid did.

I gasped with astonishment when the chair’s legs first sprouted feathery wings that enabled Dick or Fanny or whoever to embark on magical adventures. Or when the top of the Faraway Tree rotated to reveal a new and wondrous land that Dick, etc were able to enter for, yep, you guessed it, magical adventures.

To my fifty-year-old self, this all seems unutterably twee. But my five-year-old eyes were opened to the infinite worlds of possibilities that can be contained within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me.

One of my friends calls me a dreamer. He’s probably right. And it’s all your fault, Enid bloody Blyton. You set me on a path that I still follow. You changed my life. For that I thank you.

From Page to Screen – Part 3

Favourite film adaptations

I thought it might be a bit of fun to list my top ten favourite film adaptations of books I’ve read. Until I sat down to compile the list and realised it’s not that easy because either the films haven’t measured up to the books, or I’ve enjoyed a film but not (yet) read the book upon which it’s based.

The other problem is that I have read a lot of books and watched a lot of films. I’m at that age where my mind refuses to hold onto names that leave no lasting impression on it. That being so, there might have been better film adaptations I’ve seen than some that make it onto the list, but that I’ve simply forgotten about. In fact, it’s quite likely.

Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, here follows in no particular order (I struggled to compile a list of ten, let alone having to rank them in order) my top ten film adaptations of books I’ve read.

The Lord of the Rings

One of my favourite books; one of my favourite adaptations— see From Page to Screen – Part 2 where I explain why.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I can’t imagine anyone more suited to the lead role of Randle McMurphy than Jack Nicholson in his pomp. Add a breathtaking performance by Louise Fletcher as his nemesis Nurse Ratched and it makes for a superb film, at times hilarious, at others heartbreakingly sad.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The 39 Steps

There have been many film and television adaptations of John Buchan’s adventure novel involving spy rings, military secrets and a man on the run. My favourite by far is the 1935 Hitchcock version, starring Robert Donat as the novel’s hero Richard Hannay. It is only loosely based upon the novel but, for me, improves upon the book with its ending.


The Thirty-Nine Steps

Blade Runner

Also mentioned in ‘From Page to Screen – Part 2’, linked above, this is one of those rare films that takes all that is good from the source material and improves upon it.


Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

The Da Vinci Code

I’m not a fan of Dan Brown’s writing style, yet I’ve read most of his books and will continue to do so because he tells a ripping yarn. The underlying concept behind this novel blew me away and I thought they did a pretty good job with the film version. Any film featuring Tom Hanks, Paul Bettany and Audrey Tautou (not to mention Ian McKellen and Alfred Molina) ought to be decent, and this one doesn’t disappoint.


The Da Vinci Code

Starship Troopers

The novel is up there, for me, with Robert Heinlein’s finest. The film version, although not originally even based on the book, does a great job of satirising the aspects, such as militarism and fascism, for which the novel came in for criticism. I thought both the novel and film were a great deal of escapist fun.


Starship Troopers

Stand By Me

This adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Body, just shades The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile as my favourite King adaptation. See From Page to Screen – Part 1 for more on this.

The Road

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic books. Unremittingly bleak and brutal, I couldn’t put it down. I sat to watch the film version with a little apprehension, but the film was as bleak and brutal, and as good, as the book. It’s also the first film I’ve seen starring Viggo Mortensen where I didn’t keep thinking about Aragorn.


The Road

Catch-22

The novel is a beguiling mixture of absurdism and grittiness, and I wondered how it could translate to the screen. Well, the 1970 film worked for me. What really made it was the casting of Alan Arkin as the central character John Yossarian. I watched the recent television serial adaptation, which was also a worthy effort, but couldn’t help comparing the actor who played Yossarian unfavourably with Arkin.


Catch-22

Day of the Jackal

The tension in the novel is superbly crafted and I doubted it could be reproduced on screen. How wrong I was. The film version, with Edward Fox in the title role, is as suspenseful as the book. They are both excellent.


The Day of the Jackal

Till next time…

Weird Words 2

The second in a series of posts looking at words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Myriad

This is a word I tend to avoid because I’ve always been a little confused about its correct usage. Is it:

—there are a myriad of ways to use it

—there are myriads of ways to use it

—there are myriad ways to use it

or some other way?

Many years ago, I read that using it as a noun (as in the first two examples) is frowned upon and I therefore shied away from using it at all. But, on further investigation, it seems that all three examples are correct. It can be a noun or an adjective. According to Merriam-Webster:

Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective.… [H]owever, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.

So there. Use it pretty much in any way you want.

Supersede

—to displace, to force out of use as inferior, to cause to be set aside, to take the place or position of.

If ever there’s a word that you’d think would be spelt differently, it must be this one. How on earth isn’t it ‘supercede’? Apparently, some think it is. Here’s Merriam-Webster again:

Supercede has occurred as a spelling variant of supersede since the 17th century, and it is common in current published writing. It continues, however, to be widely regarded as an error.

Safer, then, to stick to the generally accepted spelling. Unless you’re feeling contrary…

Gubbins

I love this word. It seems mainly to be a word used in Britain, usually meaning the workings of some machinery, or bits and pieces that go into making something. I used it with glee in The Elevator, where two characters, one British, the other American, have just ventured out of an elevator, not into the office space they were expecting, but into a sun-drenched land inhabited by strange creatures.

“That’s the elevator shaft, right?’ said Kim from behind me.

“I guess so. Look how high it is. The gubbins must be inside it.’

“Gubbins?’

“Er, you know, the workings. Whatever makes it go up and down.’

“Ah. Sure. Okay.’ She gave a high-pitched, feverish giggle.

Like ‘discombobulate’ in Part 1, it’s one of those words that simply sounds perfect for its meaning.

 

That’s all for Part 2. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

In the Durrells’ Footsteps

One of the books set for study for my English Literature O Level* was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. At that time—around 1979-80—I must confess to not having heard of the book, its author or his brother Larry, also a writer. Back then, I was reading horror novels by James Herbert and Stephen King, or fantasy by David Gemmell and Tolkien.

As a young teenager I had read and fallen in love with Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee. There was something about Lee’s writing and his reminiscences about life in rural Gloucestershire in the period after the Great War that called to me.


Cider With Rosie

My Family had the same effect. I was instantly captivated by Durrell’s writing—it’s been many years since I last read the book, but I can still recall the wonderfully evocative way he described the cold from which he was suffering (and which partly prompted his mother to uproot the family and transport them almost two thousand miles to Greece). He wrote that the British summer had brought cattarh, ‘pouring it into my skull like cement’.

In case you haven’t read it (or seen one of the TV adaptations), the book and its two sequels are about the family’s sojourn to Corfu in 1935 when Gerry (Gerald) was aged ten. A keen student of natural history at even such a young age, he recounts his many and varied adventures with the Greek wildlife. But the real joy, for me, lies in the anecdotes about his family and the locals they encounter during their four-year stay on the island before war forces them back to Britain. There are also the eccentric guests Gerry’s eldest brother, Larry, invites to stay with them, usually at short to no notice, much to his long-suffering mother’s despair.


My Family and Other Animals

Larry (Lawrence) became an accomplished novelist, best known for The Alexandria Quartet. He provides the impetus for most of the funniest escapades, although Gerry’s bullish older brother Leslie and his flighty sister Margo, as well as their mother, have their share of comic moments.

As soon as we started reading the book in class, I was hooked and there was no way I could wait to read the book at the pace set by our English teacher. I continued reading it at home that evening and had finished it long before the deadline set by the teacher. Re-reading the book two or three times in preparation for the exam was no hardship.

That’s a long-winded way to explain why the island of Corfu has held a fascination for me since my mid-teens. Over the years, I have visited the island four or five times and have just come back from a fortnight in Glyfada on its west coast. The landscape, despite the paucity of summer rain, is surprisingly verdant, the sea is molten aquamarine and wonderfully cooling in the heat of the day, the sunsets are spectacular, and the locals are amongst the friendliest people I have ever encountered.

Although this holiday was intended as a total chill-out, recharge-the-batteries laze around the beach and pool—and was—we did take a couple of trips into the baking heat of the island’s capital, Corfu Town. They have a cricket pitch near the castle and harbour; on a previous trip, I’ve drunk a beer and watched a match taking place. Not far away, is a park dedicated to Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.

In My Family, the Durrells live in three villas during their stay on the island: apparently, two of the three still stand and they’re not far away from Corfu Town. Next time I visit Corfu (there will definitely be a next time), I want to find a trip that takes tourists to view the villas. Sure, they and the surroundings in which they stand probably bear little resemblance to the 1930s versions, but it’s still something I’d love to do. Short of time travel, I can’t imagine a better way of bringing one of my favourite books to life.

( * for those who don’t know, O Levels are the qualifications that teenagers used to sit in the UK at around the age of sixteen. They’ve since been supplanted by GCSEs.)