Dido changed my life

Dido changed my life.

Dido – Thank You, White Flag, Life For Rent, Stan (with Eminen) – yes, that Dido. She has changed my life.

I don’t suppose anyone – not least Dido herself – would have expected her music to be behind such an epiphany. How did it happen?

It started when I woke up in the middle of a BBC televised Radio 2 Live concert late one night. I’d fallen asleep during a particularly dull Match of the Day and was woken by Dido in full flow. I often fall asleep watching television. I close my eyes, with the intention of simply resting them and listening for a few moments . . . then it’s an hour later. I know it happens but I still do it. More than a few times, I’ve started watching a film, drifted off and woken up and continued watching, not realising until the end it’s a different film with different cast and plot.

Back to Dido. She was singing a song I know now to be called Friends. Dido’s usual gentle, mournful but appealing (to me) delivery was suddenly interrupted by a wild guitar break and even wilder drumming. I was hooked. And that’s always a cue for me to want to go buy it.

Trouble is, in these digital times, it’s been increasingly hard to buy new music. I like it on a physical medium, something I can touch, hold, read and smell – and possess. I’ve bought high-end equipment and so I can hear it at its best. Not for me Alexa or my laptop’s squawky speakers. 

This, some might say, obsession began in my childhood. I have assembled an array of vinyl (it’s too random to be called a ‘collection’) since my first singles at the start of the 1960s, gradually embracing LPs (albums as they became known).

No particular genre, just if it takes my fancy. And it’s probably as diverse as you can get. Sharing shelf space, Jimi Hendrix sits cheek by jowl with Heron Oblivion, Henry Cow, the Herd, Herman’s Hermits and Woody Herman. I also assembled CDs in the Dark Ages when records were few and far between. But in recent times, with the growth of mp3, I’ve missed out. And it’s left me feeling disenfranchised, as there’s a lot of good music out there, even to these ageing ears.

And Dido’s Friends, had taken my fancy. The worry I had was that it would only be available on mp3. So I was relieved to find that it was on a traditional vinyl album and, what’s more, on the shelf of my nearest surviving record shop.

Back home, on the turntable, I went straight to that track. But while sounding smooth and rounded, there was none of the drive from guitars and percussion that I’d imagined on the live show. Perhaps it was the way the record was pressed.

I have noticed that digital recordings sometimes don’t sound so good on analogue vinyl. So back I went and bought a CD version. No go. A little crisper, sharper, but none of what had first drawn me to the song in the Radio 2 session.

Desperate, I turned to YouTube and checked the performance online. The answer stared me in the face. The guitars were additional to the recorded version and the drumming came from a person not a synthesiser.

At first, dismay. And then, the epiphany.

I found I could plug my computer into my hifi’s pre-amp and, wow! The track came to life for me. With a couple of tweaks on the graphic equaliser, it sounded even better.

It was just a small step before I was Googling other live performances and listening to artists with an online presence only. What’s more, I started discovering tracks I don’t own or haven’t the space for. A new world of music previously unavailable to me. At my fingertips. In a decent quality. Online.

So late in the day, I have entered music’s digital age. And I’m excited at the discovery.

Dido, Thank You.

Friends is on Dido’s album Still On My Mind. (And the other tracks have hooked me too and are well worth a listen, I should add!)

Richard Smith’s first novel, Homeward Bound, is available on lone and from bookshops.

The tyranny of the pen

We weren’t allowed to use ball point pens at my school. The very word, Biro, was never mentioned. All writing had to be with a fountain pen, preferably using Quink blue-black. We also had lessons in how to form capital letters, and no essay would be accepted if the wrong form of ‘F’, ‘G’ or ‘T’ was used, or words were not joined up correctly.

I was sitting with my feet in a pool a while back, reflecting on life, and this early ‘60s memory flashed back to me. Having published my first novel, Homeward Bound, I’m often asked how I write; longhand or straight into a computer. My first response is it’s a wonder I write at all after that induction and suffering the tyranny of the fountain pen.  But the answer is that once I’d been given a Parker for my 18th birthday, I never looked back and now I compose entirely using its cheaper successors – a Biro, Bic, or one of those freebies you collect at exhibitions.

Why I like a ballpoint is it’s so easy to write quickly and even easier to make changes, ideal if thoughts are spilling out of your head at a rate of knots. And if there’s an inspiration for later, a word that’s just come to me to improve a previous sentence, or a paragraph that needs moving, I scribble it down and add an asterisk, a box, or an arrow to signal something to come back to later.

It takes just a second and  – more importantly – it doesn’t interrupt the flow of ideas. Add to the fact that I write on scrap paper – the reverse of single-sided photocopies or envelopes that held today’s consignment of bills and begging letters and I can add feeling virtuous about my recycling into the argument for longhand.

I’ve tried starting on a computer but, for me, it’s a slow, laborious and stultifying experience. I’m quite fast – a self taught two fingered style serves me quite well – but the plethora of red underlines and strange line spacings distract me, making me want to correct as I go, and the practicalities swamp and submerge the original inspiration. Using a ballpoint, the ideas can just flow.

There is a downside to paper. A puff of wind and the pages scatter across the room, a disaster when I’ve not numbered them. And worse, the speed that the ballpoint allows me invariably comes to the detriment of legibility. I’ve invented my own form of shorthand, with vowels omitted and words often just a squiggle between first and last letters. Their meaning is all so obvious as I write, but when it comes to reading back, it’s often impossible to decipher.

The answer? I don’t read it back! For the next stage is to transcribe my manuscript into my laptop and as often as not, I make it all up again. This is partly because I can’t make head nor tail of my longhand, but also because, having created a sense and the structure, I can recompose it straight into my laptop from memory. A second draft, as it were.

Once the page is on the laptop and saved (how many times did I use to lose a day’s work because I hadn’t saved my manuscript – and pardon me while I save this one, it’s still Document 29. Done it), the next question is proof reading and revising for a next draft. My preference would be to do it by printing out the pages. I find reading for content easier on paper, and making amendments using my ballpoint brings all the advantages of being able to scratch out words, move paragraphs and make comments to myself along the margins. But this is very wasteful of paper, even if the reverse does provide new scrap for the next handwritten manuscript.

My solution is to use an iPad with one of those electronic pencils. That way I have all the advantages of longhand and the sheaves don’t blow away. Then it has to be transposed on to the master laptop, but that’s OK as it’s yet another drafting and improving stage. By the end, I may have dozens of fragments of manuscripts on paper, laptop and iPad, not to mention bits I thought were good but left out, in case they should come in handy for something else.

It was one of these I was searching for just the other day. While working on my second novel, I thought I might be able to incorporate a section I’d written and left out of a first draft of Homeward Bound. I rummaged through a box stuffed with papers.

They’d been hidden there, away from my wife’s perfectly reasonable wish not to have every surface in the house awash with scrap paper and old envelopes. It didn’t take long to find the very manuscript I was seeking. Except I couldn’t read a word of it. Completely inscrutable.

But also in the box, an old school exercise book, with my handwritten notes on Shakespeare in blue-black ink, clear and legible.

Perhaps my school had a point

Cheering people up!

I’m really pleased with this review/blog, saying that, ‘After struggling at times during lockdown to have a desire to read, this book was exactly what I needed to remind me why the world of books is so wonderful.’

With more COVID restrictions, maybe this will cheer a few more people up!



Homeward Bound on tour!

All these reviewers will be feasting their eyes (or sharpening their pens!) on my novel Homeward Bound in the next couple of weeks. I’ll post their comments here.

As they say on the BBC News before Match Of The Day, ‘If you don’t want to know the results, look away now!’

Music with a message for our times . . .

An album and two singles with titles that sum up these distressing times

. .

My novel, Homeward Bound is available from Amazon and Waterstones online.

What Rebecca’s Read wrote: “Homeward Bound” is a funny, feel-good read that I’d highly recommend. With music intertwined throughout, this is a story of family, love, hope and dreams and finding your purpose at different points in your life. 5 stars!”

Five recommended books, self-isolating or not!

Looking for something to read? Five new books explore the experience, opportunities and issues of ageing, each bringing a unique take on the subject.

Hazel Prior Away With The Penguins is about a cantankerous but charming woman, her estranged grandson and a colony of penguins. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Richard SmithHomeward Bound follows a 79-year-old musician who is expected to be in retirement but isn’t ready to close the lid on his dreams, and his 18-year-old granddaughter, who shares his house and the dreams he once had. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Salley VickersGrandmothers is the story of three very different women and their relationships with the younger generation. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Francis LiardetWe Must Be Brave explores the fierce love that we feel for our children and the power of that love to endure. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Anne Youngson Meet Me At The Museum is a celebration of long letters, kindred spirits and the possibility of writing a new story for yourself, at any stage of life. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Click on the links for more information and where to buy them online (if your local bookshop is closed and can’t deliver to you). Amazon offers ebooks as well as hard copies. The e-book link is to a Google site. There are other links to the ebooks (like kobo) that need a sign in to a free account.

All the books were part of the Age UK Camden Literary Festival in March 2020.

This post first appeared on richardsmithwrites.com

Three questions about music

“I’m now going to play some songs from my new album.”

It’s the expression that strikes fear into every concert-goer.  We want the hits, the songs we know. Why do they do it? Why do we go?

Why do people go to gigs and then spend half the time talking or at the bar?

Why do musicians spend months recording, using the best facilities, mixing on giant studio speakers, only for people to listen on a squawking Alexa speaker or on ear buds as background noise to the sound of a train?

These and other issues will be my blog for the days leading up to publication of my novel, Homeward Bound, about two people divided by time and music.