Reliability

I finished my last post by alluding to the reliability of the Circumvesuviana train. A break down on this train is made more entertaining for the tourist as there are no announcements made. You are left to your own devices to guess why the train isn’t leaving the station. Eventually a member of staff will come past to find out why you didn’t get off the train. They are extremely nice (a characteristic I associate with the Italians) to the stupid English who haven’t noticed that the train isn’t moving – and just a little puzzled.

Strangely, I didn’t really go into train breakdowns in Runaway’s Railway. There was one allusion to a train failure when the Railway was herding Mark in a particular direction. There was also a locomotive that gradually fell apart due to accelerated entropy as the heroes passed through the Ghost region. Still, considering the thousands of miles travelled, the world of the Railway was remarkably reliable.

Unlike my shower.

Considering we are in lockdown, it has chosen the worst possible moment to fail. Not only that, but the part which failed is a little bit of plastic in the on/off switch. The shower itself is fine, and if you can manage to wedge the switch in place, it’s still possible to shower. You must accept that it’ll probably switch itself off halfway through, and then scold you when you jam it back on again, but it’s just about usable.

Normally, I’d call out someone to repair or replace it. In lockdown, that’s not possible, But! I am an Engineer! I am fully confident of my ability to repair the shower given the right parts. Except that the replacement has been discontinued.

No matter – contact the manufacturer directly. And yes, they have a few of these parts left in a box in the office. Wonderful! Except we’re lockdown. So, the office is closed. And my shower remains broken.

I couldn’t manage to find a suitable word to describe this sequence of events. Clearly, there should be a word for it – we’ve all had similar experiences – but there was nothing obvious. Finally, in desperation, I approached the writer of the Inky Fool Blog (and some rather excellent books), Mark Forsyth. He is an etymologist, a word guru, and a rather clever chap. Options for a suitable word are limited, it seems, so I shall settle for describing it as a multifail.

Consider, instead, this:

A surprisingly clever contraption

It looks like a bit of iron that someone has nailed to a couple of planks. It looks like the kind of thing that you would trip over and bark your shins. It looks like it will break at any moment.

Except it’s been there for about 150 years, and it still works. Not only that, but it’s kind of clever, too. In electronics or computing it would be called an inverting switch. If you push one side, it’ll make the other side pull, and if you pull, it’ll push. If you doubt that it’s clever, then cover up the picture and try and come up with a design yourself.

This demonstrates two things.

The first is that given sufficient cast iron, the Victorians could build anything, up to and including super-computers.

The second is that people would rather have something made of sleek white plastic in their bathroom, even if that means it won’t last 150 years.

Circumvesuviana

There is a kind of writer who is able to go on research trips to provide a better background for their writing. On their return, they will write a foreword to their new novel where they describe their research trip in somewhat Colonial terms. “For this novel, I undertook a research trip to Margate on the Isle of Thanet. I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the locals, who informed me that ‘Thanet’ means ‘Death’, and I think you will find…”, and so on, and so on.

The rest of us just go on holiday, and if we manage to see something that’s useful in our writing then that’s great – bonus!

A while back (as you will have seen from my last post) the holiday destination was Sorrento. It’s a great place to visit, sitting at one end of the Bay of Naples, meaning you have easy access to Pompeii, Vesuvius, and more tourist destinations than you can shake a stick at.

The way that you get from place to place is by the Circumvesuviana train. This isn’t part of the Italian national rail network, but a privately run narrow-gauge railway. It was built in 1884, and through various changes of ownership, expansion and modernisation evolved into the railway it is today. Now it serves the Bay of Naples, providing public transport throughout the area.

It may surprise you, considering that I wrote “Runaway’s Railway”, but I am not a railway geek. Still,  there are some aspects of railways that delight me. For example, as a railway passes through a town, you get a series of snapshots into the lives of ordinary people. Back gardens, apartment balconies, a view into someone’s office. Combine this with some incomparable views across the Bay of Naples, and passing through heavily scented lemon groves…

Later, I mentioned to an Italian friend that I had holidayed in Sorrento, knowing that he came from Naples. “Did you use the Circumvesuviana? I had to use that train every day for five years. I hated it.”

And there you have the other side of the Circumvesuviana.

The Circumvesuviana train at Ercolano Scavi station

It’s an uncomfortable old boneshaker, and the seats! You remember those stacking plastic chairs they have in schools, to teach children what life has in store for them? Imagine those screwed onto the floor of a train, and you’ve got the idea. Reliability? Well, no. It doesn’t have that. Timetables? In theory, yes. At least, they have a timetable nailed to the wall in the main stations. It doesn’t bear any relation to the times of the trains, but they seem to turn up often enough.

Ercolano Scavi station – not pretty, but effective

It might serve a tourist area, but the Circumvesuviana is not a tourist train. It’s a hard working commuter train that offers the best option for transport in a heavily populated area. It might not be pretty, but despite all its problems, it does work, and I will confess a fondness for it (which my Italian friend definitely does not share).

Unfortunately, I didn’t visit Sorrento until after I had finished “Runaway’s Railway”,  but that’s not the point. It did cause me to do something so rare that it’s worth noting on a calendar. I actually wrote a poem about the experience.

Circumvesuviana

Hard plastic seats and

Graffitied windows

Narrow gauge tracks through

Lemon tree’d cuttings

Blank-faced commuters

Tourists with children

But when it stops it’s

Not Pompei Scavi

“È rotto”. *

(* “It’s broken”)

On writing blogs

Everyone has been most insistent that I write a blog.

Because “everyone” is something of a weasel word (“Oh, everyone knows that!”) I should, perhaps, qualify its use. I do not mean just immediate family, or close friends, or some bloke I met down the pub. Although considering we’re in lockdown at the moment, rather than referring to “some bloke I met down the pub”, perhaps I should say, “someone I saw from at least two metres away while taking my daily exercise”.

By “everyone”, I mean everyone who expresses an opinion regarding what authors should do. This means (in addition to people I have met at a safe social distance) a variety of media pundits, both in printed media and television, not to mention various websites for authors. In fact, anyone who is given the opportunity to express an opinion.

So I am writing a blog.

However, no one tells you what to write about, although you are advised to “find your niche” (whatever that means).

There are vast quantities of statistics about the correct length for a blog. Apparently, a blog entry should be between 150 and 2500 words long (a variation of about 1300%). To refine that a little more, it is necessary to decide who you are targeting.

For example, are you interested in SEO? If you don’t know what that means, then you’re probably not, but to save your curiosity I’ll tell you that it means Search Engine Optimisation – in other words, how likely is Google to find you? If you’re interested in SEO, then you need to be writing between 2000 and 2500 words. 

If you want something that people are more likely to share on platforms like Facebook, then you need to write about 1500 to 2000 words, but if you want to write something that people will read (perish the thought!) then 1600 words is your target.

But 300 to 600 words is considered to be a  practical size to write, especially as if you’re an author, shouldn’t you be writing books, not blogs?

It does seem to be generally agreed that pictures are a good thing to have, so here’s a picture:

Fishing boats at Marina di Puolo, Sorrento, Italy

This does have some relevance. When I write, I take a lot of photos. It drives my family nuts, but it helps me visualise what I am writing about. This photo is one that I took while I was writing “Runway’s River”. It was taken at Marina di Puolo, near Sorrento, Italy.

But there is no advice on what to write about. So I guess this will be a learning experience, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.