Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Across the Pond

One of the cool things about having a blog is that, occasionally, people send things to you. I mean, things you can use, or actually want, not something like the e-mail I got from one Anna Laura Festa reminding me that the 28th of August is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and using that uninspiring nugget of historical trivia as a specious springboard to segue into a plug for Candace Allen (who I assume Ms Festa is representing in some capacity, though she never really specified) in case I wanted to write about her, or interview her, or invite her to my grandson’s birthday party to make balloon animals, or something.

ML King and Candace Allen: Apparently there is some connection.
No, the e-mail I received from Annie Marshall was less non-sequitur and more welcomed (though just as non-specific):

“Dear Mr. Harling,
     I recently came across your blog and thought that you might be interested in Terry Eagleton’s ACROSS THE POND: An Englishman’s View of America. ... After perusing your blog, I also think you will enjoy EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE by Elanor Dymott, which is a mystery set in Oxford...
     I would love to send both of these titles your way, so please respond with your mailing address.”

Wow, free books. And from someone who knows the proper use of the word “peruse” no less! So I sent her my address and when the books arrived I leafed through Every Contact Leaves a Trace and came to the sad realization that, although Ms Marshall knows the meaning and proper usage of “perused” she did not, in all likelihood, actually do that to my blog because I was not the least bit interested in the book and gave it away, unread, to a charity shop.

The other book—Across the Pond by Terry Eagleton—I did enjoy, and not just because my own book shares a very similar title and is loosely based on the same theme.

Twin books, separated at birth, and one brought up a little more POSH than the other?
While we both share an interest in humorously recording UK/US differences and similarities, any comparison between our two books ends there; Mr. Eagleton (or perhaps “sir” or “professor” or “lord”) is a prominent British literary theorist who is currently Distinguished (I have no idea what that title means) Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland and Distinguished (there it is again!)"Visiting" Professor of English Literature at The University of Notre Dame, where, presumably, he stopped in for tea and they offered to let him stay a while.

It also should be mentioned that Distinguished Visiting Professor Eagleton has written ten times as many books I have, with titles like Literary Theory: An Introduction, The Ideology of the Aesthetic and The Illusions of Postmodernism.

Terry Eagleton
Just some of Terry Eagleton's books.
All this is the long way of saying that his book is a little bit, um, deeper than mine. In fact, it almost reads like a philosophy book, or what I imagine a philosophy book might read like if I was smart enough to read one, and if the philosopher in question had an extremely dry sense of humor. 

Across the Pond is small and handsome, and would make a fine addition to any Anglophile's library. It’s also a good deal more erudite than I am used to and I found I could not read more than a few pages at a time. This is not a criticism; I consider it value for money, as the book lasted a lot longer than one of its size normally would.

Mr. Eagleton obviously likes a great deal about America and Americans but, like many observers, he finds much to criticize, albeit in a friendly, unassuming way. This book should not incense Americans, as Mr. Eagleton also critiques his own country, as well as a number of other countries that were innocently standing by. He touches on a variety of areas, such as language, duty, spirit and morality, and highlights his points with surprising insight and wit. I would not call it hysterical, but it certainly is humorous, thoughtful and, occasionally, snicker-out-loud funny.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter entitled America the Dutiful in the "Law and Anarchy" section:

“The British dislike authority not because they are opposed to the state on principle, but because they want to be left alone to breed pigeons or attend classes in flower arranging. They do not want to be free of regulation so they can aspire, rise through the ranks and accumulate profit, but so that they can potter about as they please...their resentment of those in charge is less politically militant than passive-aggressive. It is part of the ‘free-born Englishman’ syndrome, which is less strident and self-conscious than the ‘Free American’ complex.”

And in the chapter titled The Affirmative Spirit, he dryly notes that, “...any society which calls its prisons ‘correctional facilities’ is excessively optimistic.”

So, even though Ms Marshall did not specifically request that I endorse the book, I willingly do (and also note, for legal reasons, that I received a copy of said book in exchange for this review and endorsement though I was not pressured in any way to be overly fawning or obsequious concerning Distinguished Professor Eagleton or his book as recompense for this freebie).

Across the Pond can be purchased as a Hard Cover, Paperback or eBook from:

Amazon the Original (American) company:

Amazon UK:

And very likely a slew of other places I couldn't be arsed to link to.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Dark Reflection

As promised, I am back to tell you a bit more about the movie I was involved in. It is called A Dark Reflection and, no, it does not star anyone you have ever heard of, except maybe Marina Sirtis who played Counsellor Troi on Star Trek TNG but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it (if you can find it) because it has something important to say, something—believe me—that you will want to hear.

There is a problem in the aviation industry that executives, and governments, have been aware of for many years. To fix the problem will take effort and cost money and, since no one is aware of it, they can safely leave it alone.

Safe for them—company executives and government officials—anyway; the flight crews and passengers have been suffering due to this problem, in some cases fatally, but not many people have linked the suffering to this problem and those who have soon found themselves being stonewalled by both the industry and the government (pick one, any one—UK, US, Australia, etc.)

And this was the case for those few people concerned about the problem and determined to do something about it. Eventually, they were told, point blank, that the industry would do nothing to try to resolve this problem unless the general public got their knickers in a twist over it. I am sure the officials figured that would be the end of it, but instead the troublesome busybodies set themselves the unenviable task of making a move—an exciting, interesting, entertaining and informative move—about . . . air quality.

I do not envy them their task, nor the problems they are going to face in getting their message across. Remember these people spent years addressing government committees and meeting with industry officials so the talk they gave to us about the issue started off with a history of aviation lubricants from the 1950’s onward, and then segued into a discussion of the organophosphate tricresyl phosphate.

Incidentally, organophosphate is not to be confused with organophosphite. For those of you who failed chemistry, let me refresh your memory:


But I digress. My point is, the movie they are making is designed to speak to people like you and me and the message is this:

“When you fly in a jet plane, the air you are breathing has been siphoned off of the engines.”

This is a better message because practically no one knows what tricresyl phosphate is but nearly everyone understands what happens when you stuff one end of a garden hose up your car’s exhaust pipe and feed the other end through the back window.

While that isn’t exactly the scenario we are dealing with in a jet engine, the actuality is worse because of those pesky tricresyl phosphates, which are very, very, very, very bad for you.

Now, sometimes there are more fumes in the air than others, some people are more susceptible than others, and symptoms vary widely, but if you fly, you are in danger, one way or the other. Ever get off of a plane with a headache or sore throat, or feeling strangely fatigued and disoriented? That’s the tricresyl phosphates kicking in. Your symptoms will go away, and you can console yourself with the idea that you only fly occasionally, but the effects are cumulative: the more you fly, the more symptoms you get and the longer they stay with you, and nobody flies more than the flight crew. So, even if you feel fine, and are comfortable in the knowledge that you only fly once or twice a year, think of the pilot, and ask yourself if tired and confused is the condition you want him in while he’s landing your plane.

What the people making this film—pilots on permanent medical disability due to exposure to tricresyl phosphate—want the airlines to do is simply filter the air, which they, so far, refuse to do. (It’s all about the Benjamins; air filters don’t grow on trees but passengers are 10-a-penny, and there is always someone happy to fill a vacancy.)

I cannot give you a preview of the exciting action in this movie because all I know about are the scenes I was in which, frankly, were not up to high-speed-chases-with-cars-crashing-through-fruit-stalls standards. And I’m pretty sure no one gets laid.

It is, however, a worthy film, one that you should see if you get the chance. You can also support it directly; information is on their web page:

You can give as little as you like, but £100 will get your name in the “Thanks to” section at the end of the credits. £100 also buys you a share in the movie, so if it unexpectedly makes a fortune, you stand to make a few bucks. And even if it doesn’t make any money, how many of you can say you own part of a movie?

I’m buying in, so if you do happen to see the film, make sure you stay till the end and watch for my name in the credits.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Going to the Movies

Remember the final quip in my last post, the one about Hollywood calling? Well, Hollywood didn’t call, but the Sussex version of Hollywood did. While wandering through the mall last Sunday, I was approached by a woman who I thought might be a marketer or member of a religious cult, but instead it turned out she was recruiting extras for a movie being filmed just outside of town.

After a quick look at my social calendar, I found that I was free pretty much forever, so I signed up.

And that was why, the following morning, I was up early, showered, shaved, in my suit and standing at the bus stop battling flashbacks of my erstwhile days of gainful employment.

The scenes I, and my fellow suited-up recruits, were to be extras in were being filmed at South Lodge, a beautiful and exclusive hotel just south of Horsham. Fortunately, we were all required to be in business attire, so we blended in and were occasionally mistaken for paying guests, unlike the film crew who scurried around in shorts and tee shirts.

If you want to know how POSH South Lodge is, this is the Men's Room
Just imagine what the rest of the place looks like
They had wanted 200 extras for the conference scene, but were only able to scare up about 120. My guess is they had trouble finding 200 people who had nothing to do all week but still owned a suit and could pass for an executive instead of someone showing up for a court appearance. As it was, many of the people there were either in business for themselves (and therefore had an understanding boss) or had taken the day off just so they could be in the movies. I was one of the few there who simply didn’t have a job.

If you enjoy standing around waiting for hours on end,
you could have a career in the movies.
The back of South Lodge; very nice. They filmed a few of the scenes here.
During one of the many, long breaks in the conference scene.
These are the main actors, Nicholas Day and Mark Dymond.
Me neither.
Filming the scene with lead actress Georgina Sutcliffe, in the back of
South Lodge, with a table of unsuspecting, actual guests in the background.
But we made convincing airline executives, even off-camera, as people milled around taking into their iPhones or checking e-mails on their Blackberries while I stood there with my £9 burn phone, trying to get a signal so I could see if my wife had texted me about when she might be home for dinner.

Then it was show time and we all had to put away our phones and try to pretend to be the type of person who would deny our mortgage application. So we sat, pretending to be at a conference, but not allowed to act as if we were at a real conference by dozing off, then sneaking out early to hit the hotel bar; we just sat and looked respectable.

Some of us were needed for additional shots and I managed to get myself drafted for the full four days. It was really interesting, and exciting for the first day or two; after that it was sort of like a job, but with really nice people. All the member of the movie crew, from the producer on down, were splendid, and because it was a low-budget production and we weren’t getting paid, they went out of their way to make the processes interesting, by explaining what they were doing and why.

Tristan, the Producer/Director, explaining the ins and out of movie making. 
A few of the things they told us—not because they thought it was interesting, but because we needed to know—were: do not look into the camera, do not look at the actors, mime your conversations and keep absolutely silent because the microphones picks up everything.

The last instruction, of course, is why directors always yell “Quite on the set!” whenever you see a scene about filming a movie in a movie, and allow me to assure you, in real life, they really do.

As the days wore on and they began filming smaller scenes, they needed us less and less and herded the few of us that remained into an area where we would be out of the way but could still watch the helicopters land (there are helicopters in this film, oh yes!). Then a rabbit hopped out onto the expanse of grass and sort of flopped over.

“I think it just died,” said the woman next to me.

We watched it, and it didn’t move and then I began to worry that the helicopter might land on the body and how would that look in the movie? The helicopter was not due for another 20 minutes, so I walked out onto the landing field. The bunny, indeed, looked dead, but as I got closer I saw its sides huffing and its nose twitching. It was gaunt and mangy and didn’t look long for this world, but it was alive and obviously needed, well, something…if not medical help, then at least it needed someone to remove it from the field. Neither of those people, however, were me.

So I started back toward the group and noticed they were all at gathered at the edge of the field now waiting, presumably, for me and my report about the bunny. I didn’t want them to have to wonder so I shouted to them: “HE’S NOT DEAD, BUT HE DOESN’T LOOK TOO GOOD!” Then they began frantically waving their arms and making the universal “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” gesture at me, and a few seconds later I heard the director yell, “CUT!”

So, if you get a chance to see the movie A Dark Reflection, and during a critical scene you hear some muppet in the background shouting about someone not being dead, that would be me.

Georgina watches the first helicopter arrive;
not a rabbit in sight.

PS: The rabbit hopped away shortly after.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

End of Summer (Sale) and a Best Selling Book

No, summer has not abandoned us here in Sussex. In fact, it’s the best summer in living memory (or, at least, my memory), featuring long stretches of hot, sunny days interspersed with a few cool and cloudy ones, just to mix it up a bit. There is even a little rain now and again, which keeps the locals from panicking. (You really don’t want too much nice weather in Britain; people here start moaning about the apocalypse after four or five days of sunny weather.)

What is ending is the summer sale—specifically the FREE, FREE, FREE!!! downloads of my books—which means it is time to tell you all how it went:

The short answer is, the sale was a success, so “Thank You!” to everyone who participated by downloading my books.

Now, if some of the people who downloaded the books actually read them (don’t worry, I know how it is; so many books, so many good intentions, but so little time), and if some of the people who read the books leave a review on Amazon (that was the agreement but, again, I understand if you don’t—see previous comment about good intentions and time), a few new reviews should be appearing on the US and/or UK Amazon sites in the near future.

That was, of course, my intention, with the idea that fresh reviews would, eventually, translate into sales.

I’m no marketing genius, but I would think any marketer would agree with that assessment, and would also agree with my other assumptions—that July would be a low-sales month (why buy the books when you can get them for free?) followed by a slow return to normal, followed by a slower increase in sales, which just goes to show that, when predicting a marketing trend, no one knows anything.

July, as it transpired, saw each of my Postcards… books on the Amazon Best Seller lists for their category, so I want to express another big “Thank You!” to all who bought my books instead of downloading them for free. I also want to point out—before you begin to imagine me flying around in a private jet—that “Amazon Best-Seller” is a relative term, and that J K Rowling, even under the guise of Robert Galbraith‎, has little to worry about.

For those of you unfamiliar with Amazon’s book rankings, allow me to explain: If you look at the bottom of the Product Details section in an Amazon book listing, you’ll see a number that supposedly reflects the location that book would occupy if all 87 billion Amazon books were laid end-to-end in order of popularity.

The number is essentially meaningless, and put there only to torment self-published writers. It also fluctuates wildly, making a book that sits very near to the bottom of the list rise impressively high if two or three people happen to buy the book on the same day.

But as an author, I take what I can get, and by some stroke of luck I happened to glance at the Amazon listing for Postcards From Ireland shortly after it sold a few copies in quick succession, an alignment of the firmament that resulted in it being listed at 8,668.

Being this high in the rankings also effects the “Best-Seller in Category” figure, which is the location the book would supposedly sit at if all the books in that particular category were laid end-to-end in order of popularity. While this wouldn’t significantly change the ranking of a book in the ultra-popular Crime or Thrillers categories, if you happen to be in a sub-group that contains only, say, 14 other books, then you’re likely to have a best-seller on your hands. For a couple of hours, at least.

Look at me, nestled between Angela’s Ashes and Call the Midwife.

I expect Hollywood will be calling any day now.