National Flash Fiction Day 2013

One of my favourite events of 2012 was National Flash Fiction Day, the first of its kind in the UK. It was such a great success that they’re doing it all over again this year. The main date to remember is 22nd June, but keep an eye on the web site for details of competitions, deadlines, and associated events.

Already listed: details of the NFFD2013 100-word competition, free entry, with a closing date of March 8th.

Full details unravelling here:

Check the web site regularly for updates.

Introduction to set theory

Welcome to my introduction to set theory, in which I’ll cover just the very basics, and which should only take about 5 minutes for anyone of average intelligence. If you’re below average intelligence you can come back as many times as you wish and work through it at your own pace. To make it easy to understand I’ve chosen a subject that’s topical to introduce the basic concepts. Take a look at the first figure, below. This shows two sets, labelled US and THEM.

SetTheory1 In this example US is the group of people in employment, strivers, people who graft to support themselves and their loved ones. Good people, tax payers, people like you and me.

The second group, THEM, is the group of people on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). These people do not work. They’re the scroungers, living on money that comes from US, the workers.

As you can see the two sets are distinct in that people are either employed or claiming JSA, but not both. This makes it easy to see that people are either strivers (US) or scroungers (THEM).

I have a confession to make at this point. Up until last June I was one of US, the employed, the strivers, but then I became one of THEM for almost six months before becoming one of US again. Other than that, I’ve spent almost the whole of my life since leaving school at 16 as one of US, so for the moment let’s consider it a blip (we’ll come back to it later). If I’m honest, I never really considered myself to be one of THEM because I was unemployed through no fault of my own, being made redundant, and even though I was claiming JSA I promise I spent every day looking for work.

Now, that gives me the opportunity to introduce the concept of a subset because THEM, the people claiming JSA, includes all of the people claiming JSA (obviously) but only some of them are really scroungers in the dictionary sense of the word. The rest are people who would belong to US if they could, generally well-meaning people like us, and not scroungers. My second diagram, then, represents this grouping.

It shows US, the employed people or strivers, and SetTheory2THEM, the people claiming JSA, but it also shows that within THEM is a subset, people who are genuine dictionary-sense scroungers, as opposed to those claiming JSA but with an aspiration to work. As someone who spent time last year claiming JSA I feel more comfortable with this. It reflects that for a while I was one of THEM but doesn’t label me a scrounger.

Now this may be more complex than you’re used to when discussing, thinking about or reading about this subject, and it may be more complex than you’re used to seeing it presented by, say, politicians and the media, but for the purpose of our simple introduction to set theory it works quite nicely. If you’re finding it difficult to grasp, don’t worry, just read through the above and take a look at the second diagram, and work on it until you’re comfortable with the idea of subsets, because you’ll need a firm grasp on the concept if you’re to understand the final part of my introduction.

Yes, there is a final part, one more step, because I’m afraid there is still something about the second diagram that doesn’t quite ring true. Take a look at my third and final diagram.

This takes the concept of subsets oneSetTheory3 step further. It shows the scroungers as a subset of those on JSA as before, but also shows all of those on JSA as a subset of US. In this diagram, there is no THEM. Take your time. Think about it.

In this diagram US contains all employed people and JSA claimants. Within US is the subset of those claiming JSA. Those outside of this subset are the workers, strivers, those we represented in a distinct set in the first two diagrams. Both groups are now part of US.

Within the JSA set is a smaller subset, the scroungers. I know it can get uncomfortable for some people here, but the scroungers are still US. They’re the US that are not working and, although claiming JSA, don’t have an aspiration to become one of the employed. The scroungers are not always easy to recognise, they may look just like other JSA claimants or even like the employed, but though they’re sometimes hard to recognise we know they exist and can consider them as a subset of US.

This, I think, is a better model than the first two diagrams. There is no longer an US and THEM, only an US. Some of US are employed and some of US are not. Importantly, membership of these sets is not fixed for all time. Some people move from the employed set into the unemployed set. Some move from the unemployed set to the employed set. That’s what happened to me, I was one of US who is employed, then I became one of US who is unemployed, then I became one of US who is employed again, and though I know that many people speak of US and THEM, I always felt that I was still one of US. Today you, your wife, husband, daughter, or someone else you love, may be one of the employed, but tomorrow you or they may be claiming JSA, but you’ll still be one of US, okay? It’s all in the diagram. It’s unlikely that you’ll become one of US who is a scrounger unless you have the mind-set and aptitude for it, and not everyone does, but they’re US too even if we don’t like it, the US who don’t work and don’t want to work.

Once we stop thinking about US and THEM it all becomes easier to understand.

That completes my introduction to set theory. I hope you’ve found it interesting and potentially useful.


Touching The Past

Sometimes it strikes me as curious how we place significance on things that are quite arbitrary. For example, we celebrate anniversaries on the same date each year, a consequence of the earth returning to (roughly) the same position in its orbit around the sun, give or take an adjustment for leap years. Similarly, Sir Roger Bannister’s memorable achievement was to run a particular unit of distance in four measures of a particular unit of time.

Today, of course, is remembrance day, a date chosen because it marks the time and date on which hostilities ceased in World War I, and on which we commemorate all those who have given their lives in the armed forces then and since.

My father was born on 14th February 1911 and died on 3rd January 1969. As what would have been his one hundredth birthday approached I realised that I knew practically nothing about his parents or their ancestors, and soon afterwards I began researching my family tree. I had a head start, because some research had been done a few years ago by other family members, and I had copies of some birth, marriage and death certificates, particularly on my mother’s side of the family.

During the course of this research I discovered that, while my father was born and raised in Sunderland, the Jacobs branch of the family comes from the Cambridge area, where his father was born. It was relatively easy, using the Family Tree Maker software and resources from the web site, to trace the family using public documents back to my great-great-grandfather, born in Chesterton, Cambridge, in 1797. Research by others traces the line back further, to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, born near Cambridge around 1600.

On this day, I’m inclined to remember my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Samuel George Stedman. My research along this branch goes back another three generations to his great-grandfather, about whom I know relatively little. But of Samuel George Stedman, a lot is known.

He was born in Hackney on 26th March 1871, just before the 1871 census, and is recorded as being seven days old on the census form. His father, Henry, who was also born in London, was 36 years old at that time and is listed as a baker. His mother Mary, nee Blake, was born in West Clandon in Surrey, and was 30 years old. He also had an older brother, Henry John Stedman, born in 1865. Samuel was baptised at St Barnabas, Homerton, on 16th April 1871.

By the 1881 census Samuel is listed as a scholar, still living with his parents. His father is listed as a shop keeper, and his mother as a charwoman.

Samuel married Ellen Hobby at Holy Trinity Church in Islington on 25th May 1890, both aged 21. His profession at that time is listed as Collar Cutter. Both lived at separate addresses in Liverpool Road. The 1891 census shows them living at 96 Hornsey Road, Islington, and again his occupation is listed as Collar Cutter.

The first of five daughters, Ellen Bessie Grace Stedman, was born 15th September 1891. Rose May was born 8th April 1893. Katie Stedman, my grandmother, was born 13th March 1895, and Lily Violet on 25th April 1899. Samuel, Ellen, and the four daughters, aged 9, 8, 6 and 2, were all living at 126 Hornsey Road at the time of the 1901 census, at which time Samuel’s profession is listed as Coal Carman. The youngest daughter, Ethel Ivy Stedman, was born 7th April 1903.

By the time of the 1911 census, Samuel and Ellen still had four daughters at home. Katie was in Yorkshire working as a servant. Samuel’s profession is listed as Coal Porter. The eldest daughter, Ellen, is listed as a Factory Hand, Syphon Fitter. Sadly, the second eldest daughter, Rose, died a few months later in the summer of 1911.

The 1912 electoral role record shows Samuel, presumably with his family, living at 160 Hornsey Road: three rooms, second and third floor, unfurnished.

Samuel George Stedman was killed in France on 10th August 1917, aged 46, serving with the 734th Labour Company, Labour Corps, as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He left behind a wife and four daughters. His death certificate lists the cause of death as a fracture of the spine. The British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards indicate that he was awarded the Victory Medal and British Medal.

Samuel George Stedman Death Certificate

There’s an enormous amount of information available through public records: births, baptisms, deaths, marriages, electoral role, military records, and so on. This information is likely to remain available long into the future. One source of information won’t remain available, and that’s the information held in the memories of older relatives. If you have any interest at all in finding out more about your ancestors, now would be a good time to speak to your older relatives and gather as much information as you can, information that will help you to match records to individuals, such as dates of birth, death, marriage, names and places.

But today, thanks to those public records, belongs to Samuel George Stedman, gone but not forgotten.


The Continuity of Teeth

I was just turned 26 when I met my wife. Given that I’ll turn 52 next month, I’m approaching the point where I’ll soon have known her for more than half my life. I guess that’s a milestone, of sorts. There are people I’ve known longer, of course. Family, for starters, and people I went through RAF training with, for example, but I don’t tend to see these people on a regular basis, mostly down to distance, so as far as people I see regularly are concerned, my wife is my longest known associate.

Last week (Friday 13th) I went to the dentist for my six-monthly check-up. No problems: a quick scrape and polish and out again. As it happens, I go to the same dental surgery now that I went to as a kid. That hasn’t always been the case. At different times, and in different places, I’ve had other dentists.

When I was in the Falkland Islands, late 1983, I discovered a lump on my gum. The lump grew slowly but gave me no pain, so I ignored it until I returned to the UK. Posted to a new RAF station on my return, I had a mandatory appointment with the station dentist. He informed me that a wisdom tooth was coming through at a forty-five degree angle and kindly offered to ‘whip it out’ for me when it burst the skin. I’d never met the guy before, but he had a reputation for being a butcher, so I was pretty sure he’d be the last person I’d tell when this thing came through. Sure enough, I’d left the RAF by the time it did and had it removed by someone far more caring.

Other than  that, though, I’ve had relatively few problems with my teeth. My mother used to take my siblings and I – all four of us – off to the dentist every six months when I was a kid, to the same surgery I use now. I can remember being taken out of class when I was ten years old (we were learning about sets and Venn diagrams at the time and I had to catch up later) to go to the dentist. Typically, my siblings would have fillings, or even teeth out, and mine would be absolutely fine. In fact, I was about 22 before I had my first filling.

Last week, walking into the surgery for my check-up, I was aware of the sense of continuity that I felt, using the same dental surgery now as then. It’s in town. The building looks exactly the same from the outside. The waiting room still has a tropical fish tank. The tank, like the waiting room, has moved into the hallway where the reception was, and the receptionists are now in what used to be the waiting room, but otherwise the place looks and feels as it did then and stirred up memories of yesteryear.

In fact, in a world in which my closest regular associate spans only half of my lifetime, my teeth, like my dental surgery, provide an unexpected sense of continuity. While my body undergoes all the usual changes that life’s progress imposes (my eyebrows, for example, have taken on a life of their own, and my hair is greyer than it once was) I still have all my own teeth. Though they’re showing a little wear and tear — or character, if we’re being polite — they’re pretty much the same as they always have been.

So thank you, teeth, for being there for me. And thank you, too, dental surgery, for the comfort you bring.

Which reminds me, a couple of years ago I wrote a piece of flash fiction entitled The Girl With Big Teeth which was published on the Dogzplot Flash Fiction site. It’s a short read, takes less time than a dental check-up, and you can find it online here:

The Portable Bookcase

How many books do you take on holiday? Just the one you bought at the airport? Maybe one you’ve kept back especially? Perhaps several, sifting through them at the last minute – eeny, meeny, miny, moe — before squeezing them into your suitcase, mindful of your baggage allowance.

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the last nine years, working away from home on business. I’m used to humping a bunch of books between home and hotel: a novel (or two), some short story collections, a couple of non-fiction, maybe several writing-related how-to books. It’s not easy sometimes deciding which to take and which to leave behind, even when you know that three or four days later you’ll be home again and have them all at your fingertips.

So when the Sony Reader came out a few years ago, I was delighted. Here was the future – the portable bookcase. I didn’t buy one because it was overpriced, and I was confident the price would fall before long. It didn’t, not much, and though I often looked I was never tempted to touch. A literary Luddite, I continued to lug my books around the country. I quite fancied the Kindle, which had Wi-Fi connectivity for downloads that the Sony lacked, but at the time it was only available in North America.

The world has turned a few times since and last Christmas Santa Claus brought me a Kindle, complete with keyboard, Wi-Fi and 3G connections.

I’d like to tell you about the amazing features, the cool technology, the thrill of being able to select a book from my armchair and be reading it on my Kindle sixty seconds later. But I won’t. Not because I’m not impressed by all that stuff. I am. I belong to the gadget generation, after all. But after only five months of having a Kindle, downloading books in seconds, carrying dozens of books around with me in a device no larger than, say, Ayn Rand’s Anthem (all 105 pages of it), bookmarking, highlighting and all that jazz, the Kindle has become … normal. As normal as using a mobile phone, a cordless drill, or an MP3 player.

So I’m not going to rave about the Kindle, but I am sold on it. It has changed the way I read books. It has changed the way I buy books.

I don’t anticipate buying more than a handful of paper books this year. I’ll almost definitely buy The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 25 when it’s published this summer, even though it’ll be available on the Kindle, because — call me a sentimental old fool, but — I have copies of them all from 17 onwards and it’s a collection I’d like to maintain. Maybe I’ll even buy paper and kindle versions. I’ve already done that for a couple of books, for example I bought a hardback copy of a friend’s novel at the launch but read it on Kindle.

This means that if you’re a writer and you’re only being published in paper format, the chances of me buying your book are extremely small. The flip side is that I’ve already bought several books this year that I wouldn’t have been tempted to if they hadn’t been available via Kindle download. I guess that means there are winners and losers. I can’t speak for others, but if my behaviour is typical, the best thing you can do is ensure that you’re published in paper and e-book formats.

I’m not anti-paper books: I own hundreds of them, many still queued for reading and I’ll get through them all eventually. I still enjoy the feel of a real paper book in my hands. I still like the cover art. I’m just pro-Kindle. The Kindle has become normal, the normal way for me to buy and read books. And it really is something I’ve always wanted – a portable bookcase.


One month on: What happened to National Flash Fiction Day? What happened is that it was a great success, with events held all round the country and a gorgeous anthology produced in time for the event.

And I managed to get to the launch event in Southampton on Wednesday evening. First of all, it was great to catch up with Vanessa Gebbie and Sara Crowley. Secondly, it was lovely to meet, among others, Calum Kerr, organiser of the whole thing, and Holly Howitt. Thirdly, it was great to hear readings by Vanessa, Sara, Calum, Holly, Natalie Bowers (who manages the 1000words site) and others. Calum even managed to convince me to get up and read my little piece from the anthology, Fiver, and I’m pleased to say that it went down well. And the evening was really made by those people who turned up just to listen, so an enormous thank you goes out to them.

If you don’t already own a copy of Jawbreakers, you can find details on the NFFD site here:

and if you’re wired up you can download in Kindle format from Amazon for less than you’d pay for a cup of coffee in town:

It includes stories by a whole bunch of flash fiction writers, with contributions from Ali Smith and Ian Rankin.

So, National Flash Fiction Day has been a great success all round. The launch event was fantastic. Support around the country was fabulous. The anthology is brilliant. A massive well done goes out to Calum Kerr.

I’m already looking forward to next year.


National Flash Fiction Day Anthology

News today that I’ve had a story accepted for the National Flash Fiction Day anthology. Details available here:

and the main NFFD site is here:

My story, Fiver, will appear alongside pieces by several writer friends, including: Vanessa Gebbie, Sara Crowley, Tania Hershman, Alun Williams, Sarah Hilary, as well as pieces by Ali Smith and Ian Rankin. Congratulations to all authors appearing in the anthology, and many thanks to Calum Kerr and his team.

The anthology will be available next month.


Welcome to my humble blog. After a break of around two years, Unspoken Words has risen from the ashes. If you’re a new visitor, I bid you welcome, and if you’re a returning visitor, welcome back.

Don’t be surprised if the whole place randomly changes appearance in the coming weeks as I play with different WordPress themes – there are some really cool themes out there to choose from – but the content should develop along the way and, who knows, you might find something of interest to read or even comment on.

I wear various hats, but the one you’ll find most relevant here will almost certainly reflect my interest in writing, though I’m sure other stuff will creep in from time to time. Why not drop in now and then and see what’s new?