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Are you up for a Challenge? Part 1 – Guest Post by Jemima Pett…

Jemima Pett, guest blogging at Chris the Story Reading Ape talks about the atoz challenge (blogging 6 days a week throughout April, taking the letter a as the prompt on 1st. April, b on 2nd., and so on. I did it last year and am still prevaricating about whether to do it again this year. (You can see my atoz posts from last year by clicking the atozchallenge tag above)

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog


Reading, writing, blogging, they all have their own challenges. And then some of us go and make it, if not competitive, then something of a commitment, a target to achieve in a set timescale.

I’m getting to be a bit of a challenge-aholic, so I’m going to talk about these challenges in three posts, starting today with Blogging Challenges.

Once upon a time, I started my blog. I didn’t have much of an idea what to write about, except my progress in writing a book, or rather, bringing the books I’d already written into the public eye. And the first bit of advice about that is: write a blog. I wandered about, posting occasionally, probably never being read, until something happened that changed my blogging life. I expect you had a similar experience. If you haven’t then let me introduce you to…

The A to Z April Blogging Challenge

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5 More #atoztreasures

I promised I’d share some more of the excellent blogs that constituted the April 2016 a to z challenge. Here is another bunch of five that I have enjoyed. I think you will, too.

Check out Suzanne Rogerson for a sumptuous collection of photographs, recipes and more.

Some contributors experimented with different verse forms. The View From the Third Floor by Eliptical Man is one such. Dr Amit Prakash will, in his Doc2poet blog, introduce you to many oriental and other forms, with translations and explanations.

Also from the sub-continent prabatks, aka inkyfire, produced 26 love poems.

Nebraskan author and journalist, Kathryn Harris, produced a beautifully written series of reminiscences.

Of course, you can still go to the full list of contributors which you will find here and make a few random selections of your own.

5 #atoztreasures: #atozchallenge

One of the great pleasures of participating in the #atozchallenge has been the opportunity to look at what others have done with it. Over 1300 people completed the challenge so it would be impossible for any one individual to read them all. I have looked at a few – and intend to look at a few more over the next while. I’ll provide links to some I’ve liked and that you might like too. Here, in no particular order, are the first five.

The submissions from The take the form of conversations between husband and wife or wife and her friends, all in Dublin dialect. It’s a bit ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ meets Roddy Doyle and captures the various relationships well. In the process it manages to introduce comment on current events (check out Y for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for the day the verdict was announced from the Hillsborough inquest).

Damyanti Biswas used her 26 contributions to publicise the work of an education and support charity working in India called ‘Project Why’. Her stories about the volunteers and clients of the Project are truly inspiring and should live on long after April 2016 is forgotten.

Several writers used the opportunity to tease with quotes from their books, or to share some of the thing that inspired thee events or characters it depicts. Val Tobin is one of those, so is Yolanda Renee whose murder mysteries are set in Alaska. Her #atozchallenge posts evoke the Alaskan landscape and history very well.

Marjory Witt settled for 26 posts each exactly 67 words long and each relating to an obscure word. It’s fun to read and, with entries that short, doesn’t take long.

I’ll be back with 5 more #atoztreasures soon. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy this first selection.

Zoot Sims: #atozchallenge

A couple of years before I left school some of my class mates started bringing jazz records they’d purchased in specialist music shops in London. It was my introduction to a style of music that came to be known as Modern Jazz. A development from swing, this free flowing form of music was pioneered by various instrumentalists who had cut their musical teeth with one or more of the Basie, Ellington and Goodman bands of the 1940s.

Zoot Sims and his brother Ray were members of the Benny Goodman band in 1946-7, Zoot on saxophone and Ray on trombone. Afterwards Zoot joined the Woody Herman band. There he worked alongside Stan Getz and Al Cohn, establishing his reputation for an intensely melodic style of playing influenced by, and building upon, Lester Young’s laid back vocabulary. It was his work with the Gerry Mulligan sextet that I remember most fondly from that time.

I used my love of jazz in my novel Transgression. A young woman arrives in London in 1947 where, through her friendship with a medical student, she discovers live jazz in a Soho club.

The main thing, so far as Mabel was concerned, was that he appeared knowledgeable about jazz. He could talk for hours about the difference between Basie and Ellington, knew all the new combos, could explain why Monk was so much cooler than Moreton, compared Mulligan’s swinging baritone with Sims’s tenor playing, said he was looking forward to hearing the result of the latter’s partnership with Getz and Cohn now he’d left Benny Goodman and joined Woody Herman’s new line-up.

Of course, the time would come when she realised some of this was complete tosh, made up to impress her. For now, she was grateful for the opportunity to see and hear musicians performing in the flesh.

The atmosphere inside the club was all she had expected, and more. They were able to sit close to the small platform on which the musicians played. She could see the tendons in their necks straining, their cheeks puffed out as they blew into the mouthpieces of their instruments, their fingers flying across the valves that changed the timbre of the notes they played. Sweat poured from their hair lines, dripped from their chins, and light flashed brassily from the curved surfaces of trumpets and saxophones.

And that is my final contribution to the 2016 atoz challenge. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all 26 as much a I’ve enjoyed writing them.

Yakety Sax & Yakety Axe: #atozchallenge

If you are old enough to remember the Benny Hill show, after it transferred to Thames Television in 1969, you will know the tune that accompanied the closing chase sequence. Originally recorded in 1963 by its composer, Boots Randolph, the raucous nature of the saxophone notes and the insistent rhythm were an ideal accompaniment to the jerky motion of Hill’s many pursuers. British saxophonist Peter Hughes was responsible for the version used on Hill’s show.

Boots Randolph was a Nashville based session musician who played on recordings by many country and rock artistes during the 60s and later. Hits featuring Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee and REO Speed Wagon all benefited from his distinctive saxophone style. Yakety Sax was Randolph’s updating of a piece originally composed by James Q ‘Spider’ Rich and references a saxophone solo on a 1958 Coasters recording of the Lieber and Stoller song ‘Yakety Yak’.

Nashville Stars

Another musician who worked alongside Randolph on recordings by Elvis and other Nashville based stars is the country guitarist Chet Atkins. In 1965, Atkins recorded a guitar version of the tune which he called Yakety Axe. Randolph and Atkins sometimes played the tune as a duet during joint TV appearances.

For a short while in the early 1990s I produced a country music record show for a small hospital radio station. A track I played frequently was Jerry Reed’s version of Yakety Axe. Reed was an associate of Atkins, and the latter is on record as saying that Reed helped him work out the fingering for Yakety Axe.

As well as being acknowledged as one of the best country guitar players, Reed was an actor, composer and singer. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both recorded songs written by Reed. As an actor in the 1970s, Reed co-starred with Burt Reynolds in several movies, including all three of the ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ films for which he also composed the sound track.

In 1990 Atkins was joined by the British guitarist/singer-songwriter Mark Knopfler in a version of Yakety Axe on which Atkins recited verses written by Merl Travis, the man whose style of guitar picking originally inspired Atkins.

Making a Choice: #atozchallenge (X)

This post is for election nerds. If politics or statistics leave you cold, read no further. If, however, you want to try to understand how it is that supposedly democratic elections so often fail to produce a satisfactory outcome, read on.

In May 2015 the voters of the UK made their choice. 37% of them placed their ‘X’ against a candidate of the Conservative Party. Almost 13% placed their ‘X’ against the name of someone representing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Yet the Conservatives hold 331 of the seats in the new Parliament (51%) whilst UKIP holds just one seat.

The reason? Britain uses a system of voting known as First Past the Post (FPTP). In each electoral area the individual with most votes is the one deemed elected. So if there are a large number of candidates it is quite possible for someone to be declared the winner with fewer than 30% of the total votes cast in that area. A great deal, therefore, depends on the demographics of each electoral area. Across the United Kingdom there are electoral areas (called constituencies) where there is a tradition of voting for one or other of the two main parties which, broadly speaking, represent either working class values (Labour) or middle class aspirations (Conservative). This gives rise to two important effects:

  • In most constituencies the outcome is predictable, therefore a vote for any other candidate can be seen as a ‘wasted vote’, having no impact on the overall result.
  • In the relatively small number (about 15%) of constituencies where the demographic is mixed, the result could go either way. Therefore all parties concentrate their campaigning efforts on these ‘marginal’ areas. Electors in these constituencies are the ones with the power to determine who governs.

These discrepancies, between share of vote and seat share, suggest that UK elections are far from truly democratic, since the result is nearly always a government with minority electoral support. It is this fact that has made me a lifelong advocate of Proportional Representation, a system of elections that ensures the share of seats in the parliament matches the share of votes cast. It is important to understand that there are several such systems in use around the world, none of which is precisely proportional. All do, however, produce a result closer to the expressed wish of the electorate than does FTTP.

The system I have always favoured goes by the cumbersome title of ‘Single Transferable Vote in Multi-member Constituencies’, STV for short. Constituencies are larger than present UK constituencies – that is to say they have a larger population. Each enlarged constituency returns three or more representatives to parliament. Voters place candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper, listing them 1, 2, 3, etc., rather than marking with a ‘X’. In doing so, they are, in effect answering two supplementary questions after ‘which candidate would you like to represent you?’:

  • ‘If he or she gets more votes than he or she needs, who else would you like to represent you’, and
  • ‘If he or she doesn’t get enough votes, which of the remaining candidates would you choose?’

That’s the system in operation in Ireland. On February 26th this year an election was held in Ireland. And it revealed the problem inherent in the system. Fine Gael, the party with most votes, received just 25.5% of the votes cast. In second place, Fianna Fail received 24.3%. In other words, the 2 main parties, bitterly opposed to each other, could not muster 50% of the vote between them. Of the rest, only Sinn Fein received more than 10%. Two months after the election, Ireland still does not have a government. And it remains unclear if the parties will be able to agree on a minority administration any time soon, or if there will need to be another election, the outcome of which could well be no more conclusive.

Do I still favour proportional representation? Yes, because democracy demands it. But it is clear that FTTP is better able to produce stable government. In either case, those granted the honour of representing the people ought to pay attention to the underlying level of support for their particular viewpoint. They should not assume that they can implement every policy contained in their manifesto despite the obvious unpopularity of some of those policies. They must be willing to seek compromises, rather than arrogantly asserting the superiority of their own ideology.

Do you have experience of different electoral systems? I would especially welcome an explanation of the system in use in the USA in the current Presidential election.

Work and Wealth: #atozchallenge

Time, I fear, for another rant.

I’ll start with the assertion that work is not a right, it is a duty. Consider this: nothing of use exists without work. The most precious metal has no value until someone digs it out of the ground, someone else refines it, yet another shapes it into something desirable.

Consider, too, the most primitive form of human existence, the hunter-gatherers. Are hunting and gathering not forms of work? Maslow’s hierarchy of need places food and shelter at the bottom of the pyramid. They are the things without which we cannot survive. If you have a roof over your head and food in your belly, you have a duty to work, in order to recompense those whose work provided those things.

Why, then, are there people unable to find work? Is so much of the stuff we have in our pockets and our homes manufactured, if not entirely by machines, at least assisted by machines, to the extent that some can be relieved of the duty to work? The answer, of course, is ‘yes’. How, then, ought we to decide which of us should be so blessed?


Few would dispute that those who are still learning the things they need to know in order to be able to develop their full potential can have that duty deferred. It is no longer necessary, or even desirable, that our young should go to work, as they once did, as soon as they are out of diapers. At the other end of life, too, we can afford to permit those who have spent half a century, or more, working to take it easy for the few years remaining to them.

There are, too, some who, by misfortune, have been deprived of the physical or mental capacity to earn a just share of all that, collectively, the rest of us produce. And, finally, there are those whose education and training have fit them for a role that society already has well covered. They made a wrong choice when deciding what career path to follow. How are they to be enabled to fulfill their duty? Should we permit them to remain idle, or do we insist they continue in training, acquiring the skills for a role that does need to be filled?

Politics and Economics

Politics, and its ugly sister economics, are the tools we use to help us resolve these issues. We make laws, we collect taxes, we save, we invest in insurance policies and pension funds, in order to cover these contingencies as best we can.

I’ll leave my lecture about work there for a moment and move on to wealth – and the connection between the too. When I consider the Panama papers and the great disparity between the wealthiest few and the rest of us, it is not the monetary values that concern me. Nor is it the fact that those off-shore accounts are used to evade taxes. What concerns me is that all that wealth represents someone else’s work. And not just work already undertaken, but work yet to be done. The nominal owners of that wealth might have evaded paying tax, but I have no doubt that they have no intention of allowing those astronomical amounts of dollars or gold, or whatever temporary form such wealth takes, to lie idle. They intend to spend it or invest it – probably both – and that creates work.

Whether in the construction and operation of luxury yachts, million dollar limousines or new enterprises, these billionaires create opportunities for the rest of us to carry out our duty to work for what we have.

I find it strange that those who revile successful business operators are not equally repulsed by the millions ‘earned’ by sportsmen, rock stars and actors. What all of them have in common is that what they do satisfies a need or desire shared by millions of us. When each of us pays a relatively small sum to attend a football match or rock concert, or to buy the latest smart phone or tablet, those small sums add up to the millions that the sportsmen, artistes and entrepreneurs have at their disposal.

Private vs Public

It is a mantra of the political right that people are better at spending their own money than is the government. The question we need to ask, in relation to the Panama papers, is whether the tax that has been evaded would have created greater good if spent by the governments of the various states in which it was earned, than will be created when spent, or invested, by its ‘owners’. It is a question which brings me back to one I posed in an earlier rant about private and public provision of services.

It brings me, too, to another of my contributions to the atoz challenge, about the founder of the school I attended 60 years ago. In the first half of the nineteenth century his concern for the poor and indigent did not drive him to campaign for state intervention. Instead, he successfully implored the wealthy to provide the funding for orphanages, schools and hospitals. Philanthropy was then, and still is, the way those whose enterprise enabled them to accumulate wealth were able to ensure that those unable to work received a just share of what the rest produced.

In the past it was the Rowntrees, Cadburys and Guinesses. Carnegie, Nobel and Rockefeller also made many large endowments. Today it is the Gates Foundation, which includes Warren Buffet among its donees, and the Ford Foundation, among many others. Wikipedia has a list of philanthropists which includes business people, actors and rock stars.

Are you one of those who believes that wealth is evil and must be taken from the wealthy and given to the poor, or do you accept the principle of ‘trickle down’, by which the activities of the wealthy benefit us all in the long term?