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My New Writing Regime

I have a new writing regime.

For years I used to head in Manchester city centre to write in coffee shops and the Portico Library. Nothing unusual about that, many writers do the same.

But then lock down came and I found myself sat at my computer doing the day job for hours on end. Writing took a back seat: the last thing I wanted to do in the evening was to go back to the keyboard. I needed to find a new way to work.

I think I’ve found it.

Now, when it’s a writing day, I put my notebook and iPad into my backpack and set off walking. If I get an idea I record it on my phone using Speechnotes. When I’m ready to write I find somewhere to sit, be it a cafe, bench, pub or a convenient rock, and begin to write on my iPad. I repeat the process until I’ve done at least 500 words and then I go home.  The system seems to be working.

Not only that, it’s made me realise something.

I’ve now been a professional writer for twenty something years. During that time I was always in a hurry to get somewhere to write a story. It’s only recently occurred to me that when I read other people’s stories I stop and look at the scenery.

So that’s my new regime. I find I’m spending less time on the writing and more time on enjoying the scenery. Does it make me a better writer? I don’t know. I’m certainly a more relaxed one.

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Lightweight .emacs

The last couple of years have seen a change in my Emacs setup. Work dictates that I have to use a number of different machines; in the past I’ve tried to give a consistent experience no matter which machine I was working on. Bookmarks, abbreviations, org-agendas were all stored on Dropbox, and an increasingly complicated set of code took into account paths for different operating systems and network setups. 

It came to a point where I seemed to be spending more time on my .emacs files than I was on actually doing anything.  I began to ask myself, was consistency that important?

The answer was no.

So I changed my approach.

I’ve streamlined my init file as much as possible. I now spend my time trying to find a way to use existing features as far as possible, If possible, I write lightweight code to solve a problem,  only installing packages as a last resort.  (take a look at my really simple scrivener mode for an example of this)

I still use packages, of course. I’m not going to stop using org mode or evil or magit, but I don’t need them on every computer. 

As far as my Emacs setup goes, I now only use Dropbox to enable the use of Orgzly and Beorg on my portable devices (I still use it to sync all my other files, of course)

Lastly, I’ve had a love hate relationship with Evernote over the years but I’ve been really impressed by the direction that it’s been going over the past 18 months.  All my records are now stored there, my agenda and editing is all done on Emacs (I sometimes forget that editing was its initial purpose).

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Forks

Here is my pile of forks. The forks live on a shelf above my desk at work.

Every time I get a take away meal from the restaurant I take a metal fork with me. 

I always used to take my metal fork back to the restaurant when I finished my meal. This is because I am the sort of person who likes to keep things tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. But it was also partly because it just seemed the right thing to do.

And then there was a notice in the staff bulletin saying that staff must return their cutlery to the canteen after their meals.  It listed the number of knives and forks in the canteen on a day to day basis and pointed out that the number was falling.  Staff were instructed to return their cutlery immediately.

Quite naturally, I began to hoard forks.

I know that not returning the forks is childish. I’m also aware that the pile of forks is upsetting me. I’d much prefer them to be back in their natural environment: basking in the cutlery tray. 

But most of all I’m really irritated at being instructed to do something I was planning to do anyway.

That’s why I have a pile of forks.

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The Undecidable Blues

I wrote the following lyrics years ago, when I was doing my Maths degree. My friend, occasional collaborator and Dream London crimelord, John “Daddio” Clarke, has put them to music: listen here

The Undecidable Blues
by Tony Ballantyne

Woke up this morning, aware of my own inherent limitations
I said I woke up this morning, aware of my own inherent limitations
The fact that I can't prove them is one of those persistent aggravations

My baby makes these statements that are true, but unprovable
I said my baby makes these statements that are true, but unprovable
I ask her to explain herself but my baby is immovable

The way my baby's treating me don't demonstrate no consistency
You know the way my baby's treating me don't demonstrate no consistency
I say it's axiomatic: that my baby is a mystery

I said: "Baby won’t you tell me, you don't give me no clues
I’m riven by uncertainty, I don’t know how to choose"

I've got them Gödel's incompleteness theorem blues

John Daddio Clarke and the Cyprus Rodeo Blues Sisters sing The Undecidable Blues: listen here

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Tech

Goodbye Simplenote, Hello Again Evernote

We’ve all got a list of our favourite CEOs.

Okay, we haven’t. But if we did, mine would be Ian Small of Evernote.  You can see him here, clearly uncomfortable at being in front of the camera. I rather like him for that. Being good on camera doesn’t mean you can do the job. I’m increasingly wondering if the opposite might be true.

Anyway, read this message Ian Small wrote back in January, stating Evernote’s priorities for the year ahead. I particularly liked this passage:

And honesty requires us to state—straight out—that we can do better with the product you have today than we are currently doing. In fact, we can do better than we have been doing for some years.

He goes on to promise to concentrate on getting the foundations of the product right before adding new features.

Since then he seems to be making good on his promise.  

You might remember this article I wrote in 2016 saying I was leaving Evernote for Simplenote. Well, I’ve now gone back to Evernote. I like the direction things are going. I’m still disappointed with the lack of Linux support but I’ll trade that in for something that’s solid, or at least is attempting to get things right.

And I must admit, I rather like Ian Small’s (rather awkward) style.  Many people seek advancement by promising to make big changes.  They go for the grand gesture and then move on, leaving others to sort out the mess they’ve made. It’s rather refreshing to see someone quietly getting on with the challenge of trying to make something that’s already quite good work just that little bit better.

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The Pointless Rules of English

I wasn’t really taught grammar at school.  Not in English lessons, anyway.    A friend who knows about such things explained that this was actually good practice, that English is not an inflected language, and that grammar is best taught when studying an inflected language such as German.

I think they’re probably right.  I seem to have absorbed the rules of grammar from somewhere, I rarely get corrected by sub editors.

So I approached this book with a certain amount of suspicion.  Yes, I’m interested in linguistics (as many coders are), but no, I’m not interested in the difference between the subjunctive and the indicative mood.

Or so I thought.

I can’t remember enjoying a book so much in ages

This would be a good book to dip into, but as I’m the sort of person who reads everything from beginning to end (including, when I was a child, a dictionary) I did just that.

And why not?  Everything from coordinate adjectives to the vowel quadrilateral is explained clearly and simply.  There are lots of top tips and random language facts to think about.  The book even manages to squeeze in a brief history of language itself.

Not only that, the book is funny.  Genuinely funny. Who’d have thought a passage on contrastive focus duplication could be so amusing?  I even finally learned how to capitalise properly, something I’ve always been rather ashamed to admit I couldn’t do.

Oh yes, and I rather suspect this may be the first book on linguistics to feature Droylsden market.

The chances are if you’re reading this blog you’re either into coding or writing.  I’m recommending this book to both techy types and writers.  So much so that its now number seven on my list of Six Books Every Writer Should Read.

The Pointless Rules of English by M. Amelia Eikli and Lindsey Williams

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Recursion Crossword

Across

  1. See 1 across
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How I was fooled by Student Loans

I must admit, the government had me completely fooled over student loans.

Yes, I was annoyed that my children are still going to be saddled with massive debts, despite my wife and I saving up for them to go to college since they were born.

Yes, I was annoyed that people who had enjoyed free education voted to make their children pay for the same privilege just so they could pay a little less tax. (To be fair, some people did vote Liberal in the mistaken belief that they were opposing loans)

And yes, It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that terms and conditions have been  changed so that the interest rate charged is now higher than the rate for regular loans

No, I was sufficiently cynical to have foreseen all this.

What astonishes me was how gullible I was in swallowing the government’s reason for imposing the loans.  I really thought it was because more people were going to college.  I seem to remember that was the line trotted out by Brown, Osborne, Clegg et al.    

How stupid can you be.  No, it was another accounting dodge.  Of course it was.  You can read it about in this article on the BBC News Website.

The full article is well worth a read, but the following quotation sums it up

Under the current arrangements, money lent to students for tuition fees and living costs does not show up as a negative in the public finances.

Ah! And now it all makes sense.

I’m pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one fooled.  Committee chairman and former Conservative minister Lord Forsyth was also shocked.

“I had not understood that by moving to a system of funding through loans, because of the accounting methods of the Treasury, it was possible for George Osborne [then chancellor] to appear to increase funding for higher education by £3bn but at the same time cut his deficit by £3.8bn.”

And that’s not the worst part:

Outstanding student loan debts are £118bn and rising – but when it comes to the public finances and the deficit, the cost of student loans is invisible.

In terms of the government’s reporting of its finances, the cost is kicked down the road and won’t appear until debts begin to be written off after 30 years.

So not only are we sending our young people into debt – my children among them – but just about the time they’ve finished paying it off  they get saddled with this cost as well?

I  tell you what, someone in government really hates kids.

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Influential People

Follow the link if you wish to see TIME’s 100 most influential pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons of 2018

I heard a report on the radio about the list whilst driving from visiting my father in hospital.

He’s been in one ward or another now for over a month, tended by any number of nurses and health care assistants. These people have washed and shaved him, changed his clothes, sat him up in bed and made him comfortable. They’ve given him his pills and injections, mashed his food, helped him to eat and drink and done everything they can to help him get better. He spent his 80th birthday in hospital and the ward staff baked not one but two cakes, decorated his bed and even bought paper hats for him and the other patients.

Now, I’m not claiming that all nurses are angels. Not all the staff I’ve encountered have displayed the same level of dedication, but I find it hard to believe that anybody could be doing the job unless they really wanted to look after people. And at the end of the day, they’ve actually done something. Their patients are cleaned, fed and have had their medication administered.

And so, as I drove from the hospital listening to the radio, it occurred to me that I really didn’t care how influential the people on Time’s list are. I didn’t care what they’ve tweeted, what speeches they’d made or how many disaster areas they’d visited. At this point in time, I don’t care about the films the people on the list have starred in, the books they’ve written or how their art inspires others.

Right now, I’m not interested in lionising people who tell others what to do. Right now, I’d rather hear about the millions of people who just get on with their job. I’m annoyed by the list’s tacit promotion of exceptionalism.

Ideas that change things for the better aren’t the preserve of the exceptional few, look around and you’ll see that they’re already being carried out unnoticed every day by the vast majority. Ideas aren’t any the less valuable for that.

Or to put it another way, any half competent nurse is already doing more for the world than at least half of the people on Time’s list.

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Nine Lessons and Carols 9

I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day.

You know the song.

Even as I child I knew that if it were Christmas every day then it wouldn’t be Christmas.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had some big moments in my life: getting married, the birth of my children. Selling my first novel. Travelling. These times are not typical of life. If they happened all the time they wouldn’t be special.

I remember the big moments, but the weeks and months that I look back on with most fondness are filled with times spent laughing at the dinner table, or sitting with friends in the pub after work. I remember walking to work through the snow, breakfasts at conventions chatting with friends, chance meetings in town…

And, in keeping with the theme of these posts, I remember playing in rock groups, jazz bands, folk groups, brass bands, in duets, trios and so on.

I’m a writer. Something compels me to sit alone at a keyboard writing stories and articles. It’s odd, because looking back I don’t remember the reviews – good or bad – the sales, the signings, the fan mail. What I remember are the friends I’ve made, the places I’ve been too, the nights spent chatting with other writers.

Most of all I remember the walks I’ve taken when seeking inspiration. Climbing over the hills in the wind and rain, coming home for a hot bath and dinner.

I think it’s a mistake to have a bucket list, to attempt 100 things before you die. There are too many things to do already that are so much more enjoyable.


I was inspired to write this series of posts by a concert I took part in at a Methodist church. I enjoyed the evening, it got me thinking about happiness, music and performing. Listening to the lessons read out that night, I thought it would be nice to write something positive for a change.

Clearly I’m not alone in thinking this: I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of positive messages I’ve received about these posts.

I’m off soon to for my last gig of the season: playing the accordion for a Christingle, seeing faces lit up by candlelight. It promises to be great fun.

Merry Christmas!