Tuesday, 30 November 2010


One of the best things I've ever done was campervanning around Australia

I always loved the idea of caravans - devoured Enid Blyton's Mr Galliano's Circus where they lived life in horse-drawn homes travelling the yellow brick road - complete with lions and tigers and bears - oh my! Rare family holidays in caravans were grim and static but didn't put me off the romantic fantasy of a home on wheels.

Two years ago tomorrow me and my sidekick set off into Australia's wild west in a Toyota Hi-Ace - pictured above at 'The Pinnacles', where you may recall Billy Connolly dancing around naked. Of course I would never do that (*whistles innocuously*).

We spent two weeks heading up the west coast as far as Coral Bay*. Western Australia is more sparsely populated than the east and so huge you could go for hours without seeing another soul - except the sadly numerous bodies of roadkill kangaroos. The Ningaloo reef on the west isn't quite as good as the Great Barrier Reef and so is largely unheard of. This happens a lot in Australia because there are so many fabulous places!

Apart from the Wicked Campers - which are basically a white van with a window and mattress - ours was the cheapest and most basic, but it still had three berths, a mini-sink, fridge, gas cooker, fold-out-of-the-side-door dining table, camp chairs and all utensils.

We got a book of campsites and hopped from one to the other along therapeutically empty, perfect, incredibly lo-o-o-o-ong straight roads. 

You develop a routine - techniques for staying cool, setting up camp, cooking and cleaning, entertaining yourselves. You try not to run out of petrol in the outback - because of course the mobile phone you bought 'for emergencies' hasn't had a signal since you left Perth!

After Monkey Mia (no monkeys - but I fed the dolphins!) we turned inland to Karijini National Park. This was December, remember and very, very HOT so there was no-one else there and we did an amazing canyon walk & swim at dawn completely undisturbed. After that we had to heard back down across country, through old gold mining towns and lots and lots of nothing at all, down to the lush fruit-growing areas, wineries and forests of some of the tallest trees in the world south of Perth towards Margaret River.

Happy days.

This is only part of the story. We hired a second van when we eventually got to the east coast and did the trip down from Cape Tribulation to the Blue Mountains south of Sydney. This one leaked and it was 'The Wet' in Queensland. Another time.

* I was looking for a nice Coral Bay link and found the sweetest story of a kangaroo who things he's a dog and swims like a fish!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

True Grit - My Scotland Hell

I'm back from Scotland now - and isn't it pretty? 

All white and snowy like that. All crisp and even, and very, very deep - ten inches or more in places.

Met some lovely people too: that chap with the land rover and the rope was a true Sir Galahad; the Grampian Police were chatty and sympathetic; the Highland constable was rugged and got very wet without complaining; the recovery vehicle driver was chattier than he first appeared; the hire car people most jovial; the Travelodge clerk informative; the man with the giant snow shovel almost encouraging.

This wasn't a gratuitous journey - it was a mission of mercy and couldn't have been done on any other weekend. We knew it could be trouble, but my Scottish friend thought it would be okay. We got there fine, but the forecast got worse - we decided to head back slowly and steadily. But, as I think I said before we set out, 'It doesn't matter how careful you are - there are other people out there too.' So when Mrs Woman from just outside Nairn decided to take her Yaris for a spin (of the 3600variety) you don't want to be driving down the opposite carriageway.

This was my battered haggis & chips supper, by the way:

But I disgress.

You don't really want pictures of my haggis & chips supper do you? You want documentary evidence of the road conditions.

So here are some pictures of the last 32 hours - which is how long it took us to get home. There's the A9 (Aviemore stretch) on Saturday evening, the M80 out of Perth this morning and the M8... and, oh alright - a couple of pics of 'the incident.'

Thursday, 25 November 2010

No no no no November

November has tied me
to an old dead tree
get word to April
to rescue me.

November's cold chain
made of wet boots and rain
and shiny black ravens
on chimney smoke lanes

Tom Waits, 'November'

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, - November!

Thomas Hood, 'No!'

While November numbly collapses,
this beech tree, heavy as death
on the lawn, braces for throat-
cutting ice, bandaging snow.

Edwin Honig, 'November Through a Giant Copper Beech'

Fog in November, trees have no heads,
Streams only sound, walls suddenly stop
Half-way up hills, the ghost of a man spreads
Dung on dead fields for next year's crop.

Leonard Clark, 'Fog in November'

I'll be in gnawing off my own legs for sustenance in a snow drift somewhere in Aberdeenshire by the time you read this.  

*Opens door, blizzard swirls in*  "I could be some time..."

More November poems at gardendigest.com

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A novel facade

I forget where I first stumbled across this picture of Kansas City library.

Isn't it amazing? 

It's actually the frontage of the car park! Local people were asked to help pick highly influential books that represent Kansas City. Those titles were included as “bookbindings” in the innovative design of the parking garage exterior, to inspire people to use the downtown Central Library.

I can't begin to tell you how much I love this - it's like a takeaway made out of colossal chips or covering B&Q with enormous tools... erm... moving on...

While I was looking for more pictures of it, I discovered something similar a lot nearer home.

In 2006, Cardiff residents were asked to vote for their top 100 books to adorn 6m hoardings of the temporary library during a rebuild (left).  

Of course, these are both quite large libraries. I'm not sure you could do much with Britain's smallest library (pictured on the right here). Bless! Then again, I don't think much of their shelving - it's a bit shoddy. Melvil Dewey wouldn't be very impressed.

(American readers - this is the smallest library in the US)

And just wait until I start on library interiors - I found some great pictures but I don't want to throw too much at you at once... you might drool all over my blog!

Meanwhile, some related posts:

Sunday, 21 November 2010

I was a Magician's Assistant

Not knowing how to describe myself in just a few words -as Twitter requires -I leave my description as: 'I used to be a magician's assistant but, after years of therapy, rarely appear out of an empty box these days.

This may sound like something made up to amuse but it is, of course,  absolutely true.

I was twelve. He was a workmate of my father's - a member of the Magic Circle - and he started a small (very small) 'School of Magic' in his basement every Sunday morning. It was mainly pubescent girls, and his wife would make us costumes - we'd dress as mini showgirls or circus animals for his magic shows. 

Ahhh the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd... the vicious little teeth of Mr Wuffles, the dwarf white rabbit!

There was one trick where a dog 'magically' appeared out of an empty box - which was then shown to be empty again. Then me and another girl jumped out too with our special 'Ta daaaa!' faces on. 

It was quite a tight squeeze in the empty box with my friend and the dog.

I know what you're thinking. It does sound a bit pervy when I consider it now - but it was all in innocence and lots of fun. I was 'Young Magician of the Year' in 1977 - admittedly in a local competition they ran themselves which only had four entrants. I themed my act around outer space, wore deely-bopper antennae and a silver lame bodkin - 'sadly' there are no pictures - and did my tricks in rhyming couplets:

I'm a Magician, come from Mars
I do magic on the stars.

(Oddly, I didn't win any poetry prizes.)

Perhaps, in retrospect, my parents were concerned - my dad came with me on Sundays and pretty soon he was learning the tricks of the trade and knocking up 'magic boxes' in the shed. So then I started being his 'glamorous' assistant at house parties for posh families and Christmas bashes for the kids of local factory workers. 

It was hard work and a bit scary - wondering if they would be well behaved and enjoy it.  By now I was a glowering, spotty, teenager - and when I had my hair cut off it took away my special powers. After all, it was all done with mirrors.

I suspect we were both very glad when he stopped. 

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Scaffold to China

You may have seen our new Prime Minister brown-nosing in China and so you must be wondering what - oh what - is Wirral doing to prop up Anglo-Chinese links?

I am happy to report that we have done our bit - we sent in The Scaffold.

No! Not this kind of scaffold, silly!

Nor the one on the right.

(I suspect the Chinese are quite capable of rustling up something like this themselves.)

No! I mean the popular beat combo from the 1960's - The Scaffold, who of course had a lot of Chinese influences...

Liverpool Lu

Gin Gan Gu Li

Lee Li the Pink

Fang Yu Very Much (for the Shanghai plastic)

Of the three members of the group, only Roger McGough has sodded off to London, and anyway he never lived in Wirral to my knowledge, but Mike McCartney (his kid brother was in another beat combo) and John Gorman both reside on the Wirral Peninsular, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool.

Do any of you remember them? I inherited most of their singles from the (much older *ahem*) daughter of some friends of my parents and was particularly delighted by a B side called 'I'd be the First'. It included lines like 'I'd be the first to climb Mount Eiger on a tiger' and suchlike, with the punchline 'But I'm 88, I'm 95 and I'm 103.' (I forget the exact ages, but you get the gist.)

There's more about Wirral Liverpool Day at Shanghai Expo here and there's a nice article in the Financial Times online (where else?) which describes the Scaffold as: "Three elderly men yoked together by happenstance, their home town and a rugby anthem."

It also has a couple of lovely quotes about what the Chinese response to Lily the Pink was, but my favourite was: "I liked those grandpas singing."

Click here for Thank U Very Much - The Very Best Of Scaffold

More pictures of scaffold in Shanghai here

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Top 10 tips for performing poetry

I began performing in 2003 and will have totted up 200 appearances before this year is out. 

I've spouted in slams and jams, open floors and secret gardens, Palm House and Slaughterhouse, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (Las Vegas) and Bolton Socialist Club. I've been translated into sign-language, broadcast on a Big Screen and banned from a Cathedral (not my fault).

None of this makes me an expert, but I've picked up a few DOs and DON'Ts along the way - which I am happy to share - hope it helps or inspires (especially a reader of this blog who is about to perform for the first time!) Even if you're not about to launch onto the poetry / spoken word scene, these tips may also help with other public speaking.

The Tips

  1. Don't worry! No-one is going to 'boo' you - I've never seen it happen unless someone was being really offensive. Ask yourself: What's the worst thing that will happen? And then don't answer! At the Dead Good Poets Society in Liverpool we often have newbies 'losing their performance cherries' and while they might not give a flawless performance (everyone gets nervous), they are always welcomed and applauded - it takes guts and we all remember our first time!
  2. Case the joint. You'll feel more comfortable if you've been to the venue before and know the layout and clientèle. If you can't do that, arrive early and chat to a few people so you're not performing to a room full of strangers. And watch how other performers use the mic - how close do they stand to it?  

  3. Be prepared. Know what you're going to read and practice beforehand so you're comfortable with the poems - you don't have to memorise them, even for a slam, but if you haven't read them aloud before, you won't do as well as you could. Have a drink to hand in case of 'dry mouth' and, if your hands tremble, try sticking your poems in a book or folder and reading from that - it reduces page-shake.  
  4. Time yourself - practice at home so you're used to reading your poetry out loud, make a note of how long each piece takes (allow time for intros and applause) and keep to time - it really helps organisers, and they are your friends.

  5. Choose material that suits the audience and venue. Try to suss out the audience and the vibe before you make your final choice what to perform. Some poems are better read and some better heard - a good rule of thumb is not to read anything too heavy to inexperienced audiences - instead, delight them with something accessible, funny or quirky and not too long. Save more 'poetic' material for serious poetry lovers.

  6. Breathe. It really, really helps. Even if you don't think it's helping, it is. Take really slow, deep breaths for a few minutes before you get up to read and it WILL calm you down. 

  7. Slow down. Most people start out reading their poems too quickly... okay you want to impress with your fluid tongue, and get away again quickly, but speak too fast and people can't take in what you're saying. You really can get away with reading a lot slower than you think. 
  8. Mix it up a bit. Start strong with something that will grab attention -  launching with a lively poem can release tension (theirs and yours!).  A 5-minute open floor slot will allow two longish or three short poems (see 4 above) so you can vary the tone. For longer sets, it's even more important to vary the pace - a funny poem after a downbeat one, a fast one after a couple of slow ones. Exaggerate changes in pace within poems too.

  9. Make eye contact with your audience as much as you can - it helps them connect with you, and if you're looking up, your voice will project  better. 

  10. Enjoy yourself - smile! It's actually fun and empowering to stand up there, speak your own words and get an instant reaction. Nothing beats the feeling of an immediate response to your work... the relief when you've done it afterwards!

P.S. Maybe I ought to add:  
11. 'Don't forget to take your poems to your gig' - like I did last night!

Pictured above: Me, Alabaster de Plume, Colin, Abi & Me

Pictured right: The lovely people at Write Out Loud - check their site for an open floor near YOU!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


'Spotted is the title of a poem I'm sharing with you below, but in looking for an image to accompany it I stumbled across one of the universe's eternal dilemmas:

Which came first?   This:

or this?

It seems that even after 200 years, the jury is still out as to whether the pudding is named after the pup or the dog is named after the dish. There's further discussion here - where we at least discover that the British hospital that renamed the dessert Spotted Richard for the sake of propriety has stopped being silly about it. It could have been worse - at least nobody had to 'pull the pud' off the menu.

Oh, there now! I'd got this far without any double entendres and I've just gone and blown it!

Meanwhile back to the poem - which you probably don't want to read now, as it is neither cute, comforting or racy. But it does rhyme - which some people are a bit sneery about, but I have a sneaking fondness for...


In the traffic lights’ hiatus was it yourself I spotted
- alone in the congestion, so choking, epiglotted,
the muscles of your stomach still permanently knotted -
unpicking scabs of hopes and fears, the years that you’re allotted?

You still bear scars of early love – with whom you were besotted –
the one, the one that got away who still has your carotid.
For all the skin you lusted after, all the bums you frotted,
one wound keeps on bleeding when you think it must have clotted.

All the words you mumble fumbled, all the numbers totted,
the notes to self: ‘Must do, must do’ - forgotten once they’re jotted 
with all the t’s you crossed for free, and all the i’s you dotted
in the margins and appendices of copybooks you blotted.

Gone to dust the yellowed plans of daring schemes you plotted
all the hopes that loped away, and all the dreams that rotted
in life's filing cabinet, in the drawer where you were slotted.
I saw you in the mirror, in the mirror where you squatted.

There - that's cheered everyone up nicely, hasn't it?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Why is my biro broken?

It was a year ago today I started this blog.  But having celebrated the blogs that came since in My 100th Post  today I'm just looking back at why I started and why-oh-why I called it Broken Biro.

I struggle with names for things. It's not that I don't have enough ideas - too many more like! - but I was painfully aware that it would probably develop in ways I didn't expect, so it couldn't be anything too specific.

Originally I thought it would be more about the nuts and bolts of writing, maybe even developing into some sort of writers' resource site, but once I began - and especially when I began to read more blogs and engage with other people online - I realised I wanted to be broader in content.

It took a while to realise a blog's a great place to store things that I'm interested in, even if no-one else read it!  It's a very neat way of grouping thoughts, pictures, quotes and links on a particular subject together.  I bet I use the Google 'search this site' tool in the  top right more than anyone! I wish everyone had it - it's an easy way to find posts you vaguely recall someone writing ages ago!

But because I like writing and scribbling down ideas, I wanted a loosely writing-themed title. Something friendy, slightly comical and human too. I had a list, but I just kept coming back to Broken Biro - you could find one anywhere, use it to write anything. In a way the blog has become like those little notebooks I always carry around - crammed with thoughts, contacts, rhymes, facts, ideas written in with assorted biros.

I'm rambling, aren't I?  

Anyhoo, that's where the name came from and I think it fits (although I am described in certain quarters as: 'Not a biro, not broken'. Bloody pedants!) - even despite my recent reinvention as a library assistant. It's not the best ever title - there are many out there I love and envy - but it's me!

10 Things you can do with a broken biro

  • Not write a novel
  • Not be able to write in the notebook you keep with you at all times
  • Not mind-map ideas for stories and ideas in idle moments
  • Make a big inky mess
  • Shoot peas
  • Drink 'Margaritas'
  • Irreversibly stain trousers
  • Emergency tracheotomies
  • Press a restart button
  • Fiddle

So - lots of things you can do with a broken biro... and that's before we even start on the whole lampshade / cutlery/ insert your own whacky idea here

Saturday, 13 November 2010

10 Books for Writers

Here's my top ten books to buy for writers this Christmas (or other festival of your choice).

One thing a writer loves to do is to read about the process of writing - it makes you think you're 'a writer' without all that pesky having to write anything yourself! Believe me - I know!

If you're planning to buy any of these, or indeed anything from Amazon, please click on the links in the text. I'll get a small % of anything you buy from Amazon (at no cost to yourselves) if you arrive through the links below or the 10% off one in the right hand bar... think of it as your Christmas pressie to me!


Top of every budding author, playwright, poet's wish list is the latest edition of perennial bestseller Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2011, £8.69 on Amazon. Bulging with useful contacts in all sections of the literary community, it also offers expert articles on thorny issues e.g. writing for television, finding an agent. Even if the writer you've bought it for never actually opens it they will feel a little bit more like an author just for having it on the shelf!


To be fair, I haven't finished this yet, but Booklife - Digital Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer looks like fascinating reading  for authors already trying to establish a presence on the internet, or those considering it. It looks particularly at blogging, promotional opportunities, and networking with editors and publicists.


Confession time now - I've had A Creative Writing Handbook: Developing Dramatic Technique, Individual Style and Voice out of the library since May! I'm going to have to buy it... even though I promised myself not to buy any more writing books. This is the closest I've got to a creative writing course book with lots of proper exercises and examples that really help you kick start your own. It would suit teachers of creative writing too!


This gem is quite old now but The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (Stillman) is still a classic volume for poets, with detailed  descriptions and examples of different forms, all you ever wanted to know about trochees, iambs and their chums, and a really, really good rhyming dictionary that makes others (especially the online pretenders blush with shame/blame/bad name).


This won't suit 'seat of the pants' writers, but for the planning kind it's hard to beat Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success for a thorough system of writing a novel that is well-plotted and populated with well-rounded characters. Author Evan Marshall is also very active online and offers many free resources  to authors. Check out his website here.


If you write humour, if you enjoy it and are interested in how it works, you could do a lot worse than The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves. It is a curious mixture of very erudite and well-researched musings on the nature of comedy and what makes a joke funny... and lots and lot of very funny jokes. It's a cracker!


I've seen Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft mentioned so many times as the best book on creative writing that I had to buy it. Of course I haven't read it yet, so it shouldn't appear on this list - especially when I can't remember who the various people who recommended it were, but I've always enjoyed his writing even back in the days when he was Richard Bachman - great plots peopled by real human beings.


For anyone who loves reading - as well as those who love writing, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories is the definitive guide to the grand themes of literature: man against monster, the quest, tragedy, comedy, and whatever the hell the other three are. Oh, and don't try to click on the picture where it says. None of that magic here! Click on the link for more.


Carol Blake's From Pitch to Publication: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Novel Published is a really sound, businesslike guide for authors ready to publish. It takes you through what editors are looking for, how to do your final edits and synopsis, approach and work with agents, the process of publications and lots of stuff about rights and advances and managing finances that frankly, some of us may never need to know. *sigh*.


Although most of these books are about the craft of writing, I  include Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times from Bloodaxe Books because it's probably the finest anthology of contemporary poetry around, and I like the way it's organised around the big themes of life with powerful poems on journeys, growing up, love, death and chocolate (actually I made that last one up - the world is still waiting for the definitive chocolate poetry anthology).

Please do share your favourite books about writing