Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My own little bit of Olympic history

 I thought I'd start this post by sharing with you my American cousin's e-mail that she sent to me shortly after the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 games. Patty had been at the 1948 opening ceremony as her dad, my grandfather's cousin, was head boatsman for the US Olympic team. Patty had been on a cycling holiday in the UK and ended up at the Games by accident, when a friend who had tickets fell ill.  She still has a movie her mother made of the Ceremony. What a wonderful slice of history.

"... I spent 4 hours with you last night in London via TV.  What a performance!!  However, I couldn't help contrast it with the 1948 opening ceremony when it was ALL the athletes, real doves released, and only one torch bearer bringing in the flame -- Roger Bannister, I think.  There might have been some speeches, then the athletes came in country by country led by boys (scouts I think) carrying the country flag.  (These little boys stood in front of each country throughout the ceremony, fainting regularly in the terrific heat -- 95 I think.)  I am going to watch Mother's movie (I had it transferred to DVD) of their 1948 trip and I hope it has some of the opening ceremony on it.  The best part for me was outside Wembley Stadium mingling with all the athletes prior to the ceremonies as we tried to find Daddy.  We never did find him.  One of the gorgeous Irish athletes in his green jacket was quite taken with cousin Grace as she was a beautiful 6 foot girl.  We were so lucky to get to the opening ceremonies.  The old buddy of Daddy's in whose home we stayed in Windsor -- along with Mother and an Aunt Violet -- had precious tickets to the opening ceremony and then he came down with a terrible attack of gout and couldn't attend so we all got to go -- Mother, cousin Grace, friend Sally and me  (we three had just finished our 8 week bicycle trip throughout the British Isles).  Wonderful memories."

Our family has had a long association with rivers and boatbuilding, my dad's side of the family being one of the foremost builders of Thames Lighters. 

Photo of Thames Lighters with the family business
in the right hand corner. This is at the National Maritime
Museum although we have a better copy at home
There is a photo of their boatyard in the National Maritime Museum and  a road named after them in Southwark, where much of their business was based. 

Patty's dad, George, was the son of an itinerant boat builder from Teddington in Middlesex, who went on to become the head boatsman for Eton College, hand building racing sculls for the  college rowing team, later helped by George and his brother Richard (Dick). In 1910, Dick won the coveted Doggett Coat and Badge race, believed to be the oldest continuous sporting event in the world.  It is open to six competitors each year who are watermen, making their living on the Thames. Winners received a red coat and matching breeches as well as a large silver badge, almost the size of a dinner plate.  In the early 1900s, a victim of internal politics and rivalries at Eton, he lost his job and although his position was offered to his sons, in a show of loyalty to their father, they turned the offer down. With little work around they decided to emigrate to one of the countries of the Empire and although Australia was a favourite due to the popularity of rowing, they opted instead for Canada which had a ready supply of cedar for building the boats. 

After a hard couple of years working at logging sites around British Columbia, they accepted a commission to build a racing shell for the University of Vancouver. Soon word spread that professionally built racing sculls were available in British Columbia and before long they were contacted by the University of Washington rowing coach, Hiram Conybear, and asked to build 12 eight seater shells for the Varsity Rowing Team (known as the Huskies).  They called for their father to help and he arrived from England only to find that Coach Conybear could now only afford to build one shell. Stuck for work again, George went to work for Boeing, while Dick was asked to build racing shells for Yale University, a position he kept for the rest of his working life. Meanwhile, in 1922, George was able to return to his true passion, building the best and fastest racing sculls in the world for the University of Washington in Seattle, where the family still lives.  He is responsible for many of the innovations of modern rowing such as sliding seats, lightweight oars and a unique steering system that replaced the old tiller.

The US team edge out the Germans to win Gold
in the 8 man event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
After an unbeaten season, the University of Washington 8 man crew won the national qualifiers for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The Germans were hotly tipped to win, but in a boat that George had designed especially for the Games, and in front of a crowd of 100,000 spectators, the US team came from behind to beat the German and Italians and win the Gold medal. Adolf Hitler was apparently not very happy. The boat, named the Husky Clipper, still hangs from the ceiling in the University boat house dining room.

The next Games were held 12 years later in 1948 in London and George was not only head boatsman for the US team but was also appointed coach of the four man (quad) crew. So that's how Patty ended up at the Games. George's crew won Gold in their event and, although the eights was won by the University of California, they were at least in one of his boats.

More gold medals followed at the Olympics in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964 before George retired from professional boat building in 1970. His son, Stan, coached several successful US Olympic rowing teams himself and in 1984 co-founded a Rowing Foundation in his father's name, to promote the sport in the Northwest of the US. It is now home to 8 rowing clubs and over 400 rowing enthusiasts and champions young rowers.

Today, although they have largely moved away from the handbuilt cedar boats to more modern fibreglass ones, George's boats are still considered some of the finest in the world. In 1999, George was voted one of Seattle's 25 most influential sports figures of the 20th Century.

The Boy has just taken up rowing and has taken to it like a duck to water. Must be the family genes. Maybe one day we'll see a member of George's family rowing one of his boats in a competition.

So there you have it. My own little bit of Olympic history. Not only that, it is this history that has reunited our two sides of the family after nearly 90 years. Growing up I had always heard the story of George and his racing shells but in 1910, when George and Dick emigrated, communication was so much more difficult and his side and my side of the family lost touch. It was while researching my family's Thames Barges that I came across the website for George's Racing Foundation. I got in touch and shortly heard back from Stan and Patty. Despite their advancing years (and I'm sure they won't mind me mentioning it) we have exchanged e-mails for the past few years and between us filled in a lot of our shared family history. Stan very kindly sent me a wonderful book he had written, his memoirs of a life in rowing, which sits proudly on my coffee table.  I'm often amazed at the strong family resemblance between us.

We found some amazing coincidences.  I've walked past their grandfather's old house in Teddington many times, not knowing of the link to our family history. Not only that but I moved to a little village on the Thames, not believing there to be any family connections at all. In fact, we'd been living in London and I had never even heard of  this particular village before.  I later discovered that George had grown up just down the road and had gone to a little village school where my own children went to nursery some 90 years later. And George's wife was called Frances Huckle, which was the same name as my best friend from primary school. A relation? That would be a coincidence too far!

I'm very proud of our family links to the Thames, to rowing and to the Olympics and it has been lovely to share Patty's memories of our little bit of Olympic history. We'll both be glued to the action at Eton Dorney, where, for our family, it really all began.

George Yeomans Pocock, master boat builder, who
changed the face of modern rowing. Taken in 1959
in his workshop

Monday, July 9, 2012

'50 Shades of Grey'? It's all a Farrow & Ball paint chart to me

When I first heard whispers about ’50 shades of Grey’ I naturally assumed it was a  discussion about Farrow and Ball paint charts. Then the realisation dawned. Farrow and Ball only have 50 shades of off white. Even they can only manage about 10 different greys.
So what was this thing of which so many people spoke. It turned out it was  fan-fic homage to Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ saga (another thing I didn’t get) with Edward becoming Christian Grey, a young billionaire with some unhealthy sexual predilections and your woman (can’t remember her name) being transposed into Ana, a serious, dorky University student who falls for Chris’s dubious charms/furry handcuffs/bondage gear. Oh arse! Why didn’t I think of it. 
I’m not a lover of fan-fic, described on Wikipedia in this manner;  Fan fiction … is defined by being both related to its subject's canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe. Sorry? In plain English? I think I can put it a little more clearly. You take a book you like, you change the title and the characters, you re-hash it a bit and you stick it on a fan-fic website. Which is just what the author of ’50 Shades of Mouse’s Back’, E L James, did, becoming in the process, the 38th best selling author of all times, apparently.  Mind you, Wikipedia also says ‘Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work's owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published.’ They might want to change that now.
And all this at a time when our other doyenne of literary ‘bonkbusters’, Jilly Cooper, commented in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 24th June that erotic fiction has had it’s day as ‘women have lost their libido’. However, in a u-turn that would make a coalition government’s collective eyes water, the very next day she declared herself ‘delighted’ that ’50 Shades of Elephant’s Breath’ has reignited our love of bonkbusters, even if it hadn’t reignited our libidos – although sex shops claim it has led to a rise in …… sales.
I’ve read the first few pages of it and was struck that it was not just a homage to the Twilight series but also borrowed heavily from Anne Rice, The Thomas Crowne Affair, the Bridget Jones diaries, Last Tango in Paris, Pretty Woman…. It is fan-fic on a major scale. But in the end, I didn’t read on. Even E L James admits it’s not well-written so I don’t need to say so and it’s so clearly written by a middle-aged English woman trying to be a young American college student. Holy cow!
But not one to miss out on an opportunity, I thought I’d turn my own hand to a bit of ’50 Shades of Lamp Room Grey’ fan-fic. What do you think?
‘I stand in front of the giant edifice that was the headquarters of Mizzle Holdings International Ltd Plc. It rises like a giant erection in front of me, all mirrors and glass and shiny stuff.  I adjust my bunny-girl outfit, straightening my ears and giving my tail a little jhuzh (how the hell do you spell that word?).
I walk into the glass-atriumed lobby and strut up to the vast marble reception desk, my six inch tarts trotters clicking on the tiled floor. Behind it, a young blonde woman sits in full bondage gear with a gag chained across her mouth.  Golly, I wish I’d worn some rubber. I look down at myself, realising my dress is all wrong. Holy Moley, I am such a naïve college student. How did I ever think I would fit in here?
‘I’m here to see Mr Mizzle. Tatiana Wrought-Iron.’ I turn and wiggle my bunny tail at her.
‘Mmmffff, mmmmffff’
‘Mmmffff, mmmffff’ she said, exasperated.
‘I’m really sorry but I just didn’t get that.’
I lean over and remove the gag from her mouth.
‘Wow, thanks. I’ll tell him you’re here.’
She put the gag back in and dialed an extension, nodded and pointed to an elevator.
‘ffffiff ffaarrr’
Jiminy Cricket! I take the gag out again.
‘Twentieth floor.’
I walk over to the elevators, past two security guards who stand casually flicking riding crops. One takes a quick flick as I walked past, catching me on my behind. I wink, wiggle my tail and walk on. A man in brown uniform and a dominating manner slides into the lift beside me. I love a man in uniform. Back in the backwoods hick town where I come from, I had a long, steamy affair with Emmet, the postman.
The elevator whooshes me at warp speed up towards the penthouse office of Chriz Mizzle, MD, CEO and BDSM of Mizzle Enterprises and all-round poster boy for 20 something billionairedom. I don’t actually know what he does, in fact, I didn’t really care. I’m just here to ask him some searching questions on behalf of my college newspaper.
At around floor 16, a strong, muscular hand reaches out and presses the ‘elevator stop’ button. The man in uniform pushes me roughly up against the wall of the elevator, exploring my mouth with his tongue. I feel a tingling, you know, down there, but realise it was just this god-damned outfit giving me the mother of all camel toes. I knew I should have got a larger size.
I push him away, breathing heavily. I can feel his erection press into my belly. I look down, but realised it was just a handheld PDA.
‘So, you work for Mr Mizzle then?’ I ask as he chews at my neck.
‘No, TNT.’
He gets out at floor 17, leaving me alone and unsatisfied in the elevator, with just the faint tingle of the security guard’s whip on my bottie. The elevator continues its ascent to the top floor, the doors sliding open silently as we reach our destination.
I walk out into another gloriously shiny office with floor to ceiling windows looking out over the Canning Town flyover. Wow!
A stunning blonde woman is chained to the wall with pink, furry handcuffs.
‘Tatiana Wrought-Iron for Mr Mizzle.’
‘I’ll let him know you are here,’ she says straining against her chains to reach her desk phone. She cant quite make it. Undeterred, she reaches out with her long, slender leg, kicks off her stiletto and deftly picks up the phone with her toes. Grabbing the chains that bind her, she swings the other foot off the floor and taps in a number on the keypad of the phone. Holy Moley, this girl is an athlete!
‘Tatiana Wrought-Iron for Mr Mizzle,’ she yells in the general direction of the telephone handset, still grasped between her toes.
Turning as best she could towards me she asks if she can take my ears.
‘Yes please,’ I say, moving closer so she can reach them, ‘but if you don’t mind, I’ll keep my tail.’
A few seconds later, the large double doors at the far end open and a small Chinese man comes out, elegantly dressed in a studded pvc bodysuit, complete with hood.
Holy crap, I think, I really am in the wrong clothes.
He holds the door open for me. ‘Nice tail,’ he says, winking at me, or at least I think he is winking, in fact, I’m not even sure he’s Chinese.
Holding myself erect, I sashay into the offices of Chriz Mizzle, the richest young billionare sado-masochist in the known world. I put out my hand.
‘Tatiana Wrought-Iron. I expect you want to spank me.’

So what do you think?  Look out for my next fan-fic offerings; Lady Chatterleys’ Loofah about a woman who develops some rather unseemly bathroom habits, Last Tango in Chigwell (complete with real olive oil spread) and ‘LOL, eat ya’, about a vampire with a penchant for pre-pubescent girls and texting.
And for those truly bored with it all, try '50 Sheds of Grey' on Facebook.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I've written a book...

Well, almost.

My lovely regular readers have probably wondered why my poor blog has been so sadly neglected for the past few months. And not just mine, I've been neglecting all your blogs too. I am still reading but haven't had a momoent to comment. The reason is that I'm writing a book. It's nearly finished now but it's taken up a lot of my time.

Long time readers may remember that after 'The Newspaper That Shall Not Be Named' printed some excerpts from my old French blog, I was contacted by an agent who wanted me to make my blog into a 'counter-intuitive' book about life in France. I have to admit I had to Google 'counter-intuitive'. Basically, she wanted a 'warts and all' account.

Anyone who was reading around that time - and I know there are a few of you - will remember that the rather selective excerpts that were printed ins said 'torchon' as they say in France, caused something of a shitstorm, both in the comments section of the newspaper and in the village in France where we still have our house. It seemed that not subscribing to the idea of la vie en rose was akin to putting kitties in wheelie bins, probably worse, and three years on, there are still people in the village who don't speak to me.

In the end, I decided that it wasn't worth the aggravation and regrettably, I decided not to go ahead with the book.  I know it seems mad. There are people out there who would kill to have an agent. I had one and I got rid of her. But sometimes, you have to look at the bigger picture.

I put it all on the backburner for a while, then decided to write the book, but make it fiction. I could still incorporate all my funny stories but instead of happening to me, they happened to Sophie Cameron, my much younger/slimmer/prettier alter-ego. It meant I could use a bit of artistic licence, create some wonderful characters who may or may not be based on people I knew, depending on how litigious they are, and address some of the 'A Place in the Sun' type myths that still abound about life in France.

And so, La Vie en Rosé was born, with a little play on words which makes sense at the end of the story.

I decided to upload it to a website called 'Authonomy', run by the publishing house, Harper Collins. It is a showcase for writers and offers the opportunity for other readers and writers to critique your work, suggest improvements, rate it from one to six stars and, if they really like it, put it on their virtual bookshelf. The ultimate prize, for those wanting it, is a place on the Editor's Desk and a free critique from a Harper Collins editor. In many ways it's a bit of a crapshoot and the top 5 ranked books, which make the Ed's desk, are all too often those whose authors have the most time to pimp them around the site, rather than being the best ones but that said, there are some really amazing writers who really deserve to be published. But it does take up an awful lot of time, reading, rating and commenting on other books so yours is more visible.

I initially uploaded a few chapters just to see what people thought. Was it rubbish? Would anyone want to read it?  It's a bit like walking into a room naked (God forbid) because if people think it's crap, there is no way that it's  not personal. Despite the fact that my original opening chapter was something of a shocker, with the advice I've received from others on the site, it's been re-written and tidied up and, Christ on a bike,  people actually liked it. Some people really liked it. Lots of people absolutely loved it. Words like very 'publishable', 'filmic quality' and 'I want to see this in a bookshop' started to appear in the comments. Then a publisher contacted me and said he would be very interested in seeing a finished manuscript. Shit! I only had about half of it done.

So that's where I've been. Trying to get La Vie en Rosé finished for the publisher (60,000 words down, about 20,000 still to go) while at the same time, maintaining a profile on Authonomy so I don't have all my oeufs in one panier.

If you are interested in having a read, you can follow this link http://authonomy.com/books/39192/la-vie-en-ros-/ and click on 'Read the Book' on the right hand side. There is still some editing to be done to excuse any typos you might come across.  I'm currently sitting at No 68 out of nearly 6000 books, having spent time as the highest rated Chick Lit book on the site and for a few days even the highest rated book across all genres.

If you wanted to support me, please feel free to register, which is very quick and easy and you won't get spammed by HarperCollins with lots of silly e-mails, then click on 'Back the Book'. You can even give me stars. 1 for dross and 6 for Get this to Waterstones.  The higher the rating and the more bookshelves you can get on, the higher your book rises up the ranks towards the Editor's Desk.

So, that's where I've been and that's what I'm up too.  In a few months, I'll be back here more regularly, and on your blogs more frequently so please bear with me.