Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

There’s a shifty looking group of them hanging around at the dimly lit corner, smoking damn dope and drinking cheap wine. They glower and growl threateningly at anyone who accidentally strays too close. Some even lash out aggressively every now and then.

It would be easy to hate them, to pigeon-hole them as society’s outsiders. But the truth is the blame for their disengagement and disenchantment doesn’t lie at their shuffling feet. They hang around muttering about the purpose of life and wondering ‘what it’s all about’ because they have nowhere else to go. They are redundant and having been brought into this world, they’ve been discarded. Nobody wants them and nobody wants to see them. They are the bad attitude blogs.

Bad attitude blogs

Yesterday one escaped from its holding cell. Actually it didn’t escape so much as slip out a door I left slightly ajar. In my heart I knew it was a bad attitude blog but it persuaded me it wasn’t. It convinced me that it was just wanted to have a bit of mischievous fun; that it was harmless. But it wasn’t. It harboured a grudge and once it was out there it wanted to lash out.

I spotted its true motives (helped by Andy) shortly after it skipped gleefully into the bright light and ran laughing wickedly through the streets of social media. But I was hot on its tail with a lasso that brought it kicking and screaming back into blog-world purgatory.

The truth is there are a lot of bad attitude blogs already in there. They have been born out of frustration, irritation, bemusement and anger at all sorts of things – stupidity, blatant manipulation, ignorance, corruption, things that are unjust, snobbery and elitism, inverted snobbery… the list goes on. I’m Scottish; there’s a volcano that bubbles under constantly at things I perceive to be unjust or just plain wrong.

Living Beneath the Volcano is an air vent for those things and subsequently many blogs on here tend to have a bit of an attitude and occasionally a gallas, provocative swagger. They are written for no other purpose than to satisfy me. If anyone else enjoys them or agrees with their sentiments, that’s a bonus.
But the bad attitude blogs cross a line. These are often written immediately after something ridiculous has happened or someone has done, said or written something that winds me up. They are an antidote. But as they generally are dripping with what I view as sadistic humour (Mike Leigh’s anti-hero in Naked is a role model) they’re not always suitable for general consumption and so are immediately consigned to bad attitude blog purgatory.

When it comes to bad attitude blogs I’ve realised it pays to take heed of wise words from Oasis…

Don’t blog back in anger.

But those bad attitude blogs are slippery characters so I can’t guarantee there won’t be future breakouts.

Here’s a question that had me reeling, aghast and plain amazed – Why would an English language magazine publish something that was a Spanish tradition?

December 28th is Dia de los Inocentes in Spain. It’s the equivalent of April Fool’s Day in Britain and the tradition is that the media publishes or broadcasts hoax stories.

One of the main Spanish TV channels had a whole night of screening pranks, one involved fooling a man into believing he was witnessing a murder.

For the last two years I’ve published a hoax story on Tenerife Magazine to commemorate the date…and for the past two years it’s caused a bit of a stir amongst some people who aren’t aware of the tradition (even though this time the piece was clearly tagged with Dia de los Inocentes).

A few savvy people clocked it was a Dia de los Inocentes story right away, leaving comments on Facebook, Twitter and on the article itself. And most others, once wise to Dia de los Inocentes, got the joke. But the comment about why would an English language magazine print a Dia de los Inocentes story that had me reeling wasn’t left on any of the magazine’s social media channels, it was left by an ex-pat resident on an English language forum.

I’m not a judgemental sort of person (what bollocks – I’m terribly judgemental) so if someone living on Tenerife doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in the island’s traditions then that’s up to them. Live and let live and all that jazz. But if someone living on Tenerife who doesn’t know about the traditions has the audacity to criticise me for following one then that’s a very different story.

The question was so utterly ridiculous that I’d have thought it was a hoax itself, except I knew it wasn’t.

Why would an English language magazine write about a Spanish tradition?

Why would we write about carnaval…or the flower carpets at Corpus Christi…or the goat bathing at midsummer? And why do we write about eating cabra and conejo? Because I don’t see the difference between any of those and observing Dia de los Inocentes.

Why would an English language magazine write about a Spanish tradition?

Why? Why? Because we happen to live in Tenerife, Spain and not Weston-super-Mare that’s why.

‘I normally don’t like Italian food.’ The line jumped from the page and slapped me around the ‘lightly seasoned’ chops.

I just don’t get people who make trawler-net statements about a country’s cuisine. How can anyone say I don’t like Italian, Thai, Greek, Indian (add the country of your choice here) food? Any country’s cuisine is far too diverse to write it off with a line like that (some pedant will no doubt come up with a place where everything consists of  things made out of a yak). What it suggests to me is that the person making the statement is a) possibly a fussy eater and b) certainly not a foodie. A person who doesn’t like a country’s cuisine has more than likely not sampled very much of it. Maybe they ate one dish as a child that they didn’t enjoy.

It’s amazing how many of our culinary likes and dislikes stretch back to a childhood experience…or how many people don’t like food that their parents didn’t like. Try this test out. Think about something you don’t enjoy eating and then ask yourself why (brussel sprouts are exempt from this test for obvious reasons). Then try it out with friends. Nearly all of mine can trace personal culinary quirks back to childhood and family.

What particularly surprised me in this case was that the statement was made in a restaurant review in a local paper. Whether it’s a local rag or respected broadsheet I expect the food critic to be a wee bit open minded when it comes to dining. I don’t expect ‘I don’t normally like Italian food.’ Everybody likes Italian food; what is there not to like? If a restaurant reviewer doesn’t like Italian food, what else don’t they like? With that line their credibility as a reviewer flew right out of the window.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago I followed some tweets from a travel writer complaining about the food in a Spanish hotel. Complaining is too mellow a word, they were slating the food to the high heavens and above. When I read on I saw that the travel writer was vegetarian.

Being vegetarian in Spain isn’t always easy (understatement). When we moved to Tenerife we didn’t eat meat but we did eat fish, so not too much of a problem. However, we have a number of friends who are full blown, card carrying veggies so know exactly how difficult it is to find restaurants where the choice isn’t confined to tortilla, tortilla or tortilla. In Spain even vegetable sandwiches sometimes have ham, so Iberia can be a testing destination for vegetarians.

Subsequently when the writer ranted about the appalling quality of the food, I empathised…but it did raise a question. Surely she could only pass judgement on the food when it came to the choice and quality of what was available for vegetarians? There was no way she could pass judgement on how good the meat or fish dishes were in the hotel she was slating. As a critique of that place it was subjective in the extreme. Many who saw her complaints may understandably write the hotel off as having crap food. But would that be fair? In this case we simply don’t know.

And that begged the question can, or should, a writer who is vegetarian write a review or even a guidebook listing that recommends, or not, restaurants unless it’s clear that what they are writing relates solely to a vegetarian perspective?

When Andy and I started writing about restaurants we made the decision to start eating meat again because we felt we couldn’t honestly review a restaurant otherwise.

Which takes me back to the reviewer who didn’t normally like Italian food. As a travel writer, restaurant reviewer, whatever, shouldn’t the author be willing to try just about anything that’s on the menu…if not how valid or useful is their review?

There’s an episode of The West Wing where Josh Lyman, against the advice of his assistant Donna, logs in to an online chat forum to correct an inaccuracy. Of course it all goes wrong and Josh finds himself batting off abusive replies. People, generally speaking, don’t like to be told they’re mistaken.

Every so often I come across something on the web that’s been written about Tenerife that has me furiously typing a comment to correct some outrageous assumption, perception or downright fiction. However, the smart part of me tells Andy what I’m doing prompting the warning‘remember what happened with Josh,’.

Usually at that point the sarcastic/outraged/acidic comment is deleted. But over the past few weeks my finger has disobeyed my brain and screeched towards the send button before I could stop it. The  authors of the pieces haven’t exactly welcomed my ‘constructive’ assistance. These included a holidaymaker, a copywriter and a travel blogger.

The Holidaymaker
Some guy left this comment on my twitter account – ‘(Tenerife) is a barren land in desperate need of some good old Spanish culture, as well as a few sandy beaches, but the parks were fun!’

His comment suggested a few things. He stayed somewhere where there was very little Spanish culture, it was barren and there were no beaches (I’m guessing somewhere like Costa del Silencio or Golf del Sur). It also was clear that he hadn’t ventured out of his resort except to somewhere like Siam Park. I replied by linking to a photo of the Anaga Mountains and Playa las Teresitas with the comment ‘I take it you haven’t been here or here then?’ thinking that it had more impact to show him his knowledge was…err…limited rather than tell him. But no, instead I entered the Josh scenario. This was the reply.

‘No I didn’t, but face it, there aren’t many beaches and the vast majority of the land could use a lot more rain..’

Forget facts, reality or anything like that. This guy just knew better. Verdict – Ignorance. No more time wasted there.

The Copywriter
There was one of those copy-written blogs sponsored by a travel company a couple of weeks ago that was so riddled with howlers about Tenerife that I felt I had to comment. One of these was that gofio was a type of meal that you ordered in a restaurant. When I pointed out that gofio was grain that was toasted and milled etc. they came back with a defiant ‘no it isn’t, it’s a meal’. Although the author had never been to Tenerife  they felt confident enough to argue the point because they had a source – another blog where there had been a few incorrect assumptions made. There was a lesson to be learned by this copywriter. Never write copy about a place you don’t know by using only the one source.
Verdict – ignorance again.

The Travel Blogger
One of the world’s best known travel bloggers was in Tenerife on a flying visit recently – 48 hours in and out again. It’s difficult to establish a rounded picture of a location in 48 hours but sometimes when you’re travel-writing you don’t have much choice and if you talk to the right people you can at least get a flavour of a place. But there is clearly a danger that some of your perceptions won’t be always right on the mark and it was clear from the subsequent short blogs that some assumptions had been made. When an indigenous resident added a political comment to a blog about The Canary Islands, the blogger felt that they knew enough to argue the toss with them. After only a few days in a place it’s pretty impressive to stray into political discussions…or arrogant. I had also added a comment but when an equally bullish reply was posted, decided, like the first of my examples, that there would be no concessions here.

The One I Didn’t Reply To
I didn’t leave a comment on the one that had left me most speechless with its seriously skewed perception. Actually it left me aghast…and there aren’t many situations where that word pops into my head. Somebody on holiday in Puerto de la Cruz had started a thread on an English language forum asking if anyone knew of any decent restaurants as they had only been able to find the usual tourist haunts with pics of food outside them.
What had me ‘aghast’ was this reply from a resident living in the south of Tenerife – ‘it’s not the greatest place for food, we didn’t find much.’

To describe Puerto as ‘not the greatest place for food’ shows that whatever they did experience , it wasn’t the Puerto I know. The town boasts approx 300 restaurants  from rustic traditional to chic modern Canarian/ Mediterranean fusion; wonderful harbour-side fish restaurants; restaurants in old Canarian mansions and houses, stylish tapas bars, Spanish and so on. But it doesn’t really have any decent British restaurants, so maybe it depends what personal preferences are. But the point was that someone felt they knew it enough to make that judgement to the online world even though their perception was way off  the mark.

It was probably the one that most deserved a comment but by this time I was ‘Joshed’ out and anyway what the hell, savvy visitors will always be able to tell the difference between knowledge and nonsense. As it happened a few other forum members diplomatically ignored the comment and posted some more usefully accurate advice.

With all of the above it’s not about getting it wrong, we all make mistakes or have perceptions based on our own experience that may not be 100% accurate. It’s about how you react when someone with a different view – or information – engages with you.

My personal blog posts have been few and far between of late on Living Beneath the Volcano. This is partly due to work commitments (YAY- food on the table) and partly because we’ve been developing a couple of new websites; Buzz Trips – which is about our travelling experiences outside of Tenerife and The Real Tenerife.

Having another Tenerife website may seem excessive considering we’ve got two websites and four blogs already related to Tenerife (and that’s only the ones we own outright, not all the ones we write for). But that’s partly the reason. Each was set up for a specific purpose. Real Tenerife Island Drives was established to accompany the guidebook of the same name but grew to be much bigger in its own right. The Real Tenerife blog was established as a record of life on Tenerife that was connected to the Island Drives website. Going Native in Tenerife was set up to accompany that travel guidebook. Walking Tenerife was created for people interested in exploring Tenerife by foot and evolved from a page on the Island Drives website that proved far more popular than we had anticipated. And Living Beneath the Volcano was my ‘den’, the place where I could write about the things that made living on Tenerife a joy and have a right old moan about the things that rattled my cage.

But it was all too much and there has been an increasing danger of things being diluted and becoming rushed and staid. We decided a serious shake up was in order and…drum roll…so The Real Tenerife has been launched on the world…quietly, because it’s still in the early stages of development.

Basically just about everything is getting pulled under the one virtual roof (except Real Tenerife Island Drives and Walking Tenerife which still have a specific purpose).

We’re really excited about the changes because it means we can have a static website and a blog rolled into one which we think will be a much more dynamic animal. It gives us the freedom to try out some new ideas and include more information that hopefully will be useful to everyone who wants to discover the Real Tenerife.

As for Living Beneath the Volcano? Well I still need a place to blow off steam, so I will continue to to be annoyingly opinionated on here whenever I feel the urge 🙂

Andy and I have recently been involved with two UK based travel websites, Simonseeks and Sunshine that are attempting to break the mould when it comes to online travel and travel advisory sites.

Simonseeks has come in for some flack for its bold approach with some sites claiming that the ambitious travel advisory site has not won the approval of ‘the travel writing community’.

Really? Whose travel writing community is that? Europe’s? America’s? The World Wide Web’s…or five bitter blokes in a bar in Grimsby?

A criticism levelled at Simonseeks by some professional travel writers is that it uses travel guides from amateurs and celebrities. Celebrities heaven forbid; the quality press would never stoop to that level. I’m still laughing at that one.

But it’s the criticism related to using amateur writers that’s more interesting. This comment from a professional writer on a blog about Simonseeks was quite illuminating:

‘…I feel more useful and welcome at TTE (the Travel Editor) while at SS (Simonseeks) you are just another name among all those amateurs.’

Just another name amongst the amateurs. Simonseeks has what amounts to a level playing field when it comes to travel writing and here’s the rub. It’s the general public who decide whether contributors’ articles are useful and interesting. And that little fact creates a whole new ball game.

Simonseeks lists its most popular writers in order of recommendations from readers and guess what? Its top ten writers aren’t all professional travel writers. The list includes people who are travel enthusiasts rather than professional writers and that might not sit well with some.

Online travel writing has opened up a brave new world and I have a suspicion that the root of some criticism lies not only in a concern for maintaining quality (newspapers have been dumbing-down their travel sections for years) but in bruised egos and protectionism.

To me using travel enthusiasts (let’s not use amateur) is to be applauded….as long as they can come up with the goods. I’m a meritocracy fan (I’ve never been a fan of clubs so I have to be). The only thing that matters to me when reading travel articles is that they are accurate, informative and interesting, not the pedigree of the author or who they happen to know.

Ironically, after getting hot under the collar about the apparent arrogance of some pro-writers I came across a forum topic on Simonseeks and discovered the bitching wasn’t all one sided.

A handful of amateur contributors were complaining about the pros on Simonseeks. However, what the complaints actually revealed was that those making them really were amateurs, but maybe not in the sense that the quality of their writing was amateurish.
Many clearly didn’t have a clue about writing for the web (but then I suspect that’s not exclusive to amateur writers). What really came across as amateurville was that the most ‘outraged’ complaints were based around popular holiday destinations receiving prominent exposure on the site.

Some felt articles about off the beaten track and less well known destinations were more in line with what the ethos of Simonseeks should be. This isn’t only naïve, it demonstrates a complete lack of savvy regarding the business of mainstream travel writing online.

That quirky article about milking a yak in Outer Mongolia may be fascinating, but the ten people who read it a year aren’t going to make the writer, or more importantly Simonseeks, any money.

Like it or not, those popular holiday resorts are what are going to attract the most viewers and if that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be. There are always, always different angles to be found by anyone who writes about them…as any true traveller and professional writer should know.

It became increasingly difficult to feel incensed on the non-pro writers’ behalf when some were coming out with nonsense like the following.

“…what I’m really looking for when I trawl the Net for hotel/resort/destination reviews is an amateur perspective. In fact, I don’t care how badly written it is – I just want to know what the ordinary punter has experienced in a place.”

I stopped reading after that little gem.

Ultimately who cares if something is written by a professional or amateur travel writer as long as it’s written well? The answer to that is both professional and amateur travel writers apparently.

I’ve just read a review of The King’s Speech that mentioned the Oscar winning movie had been rated ‘R’ in America due to a triumphant chorus of ‘fucks’ emanating from the mouth of Colin Firth’s Prince George. It got me thinking about differing attitudes to swearing and language in general.

There’s a forum I dip in and out of now and again where there are a couple of pseudo-intellectuals who positively abhor the use of swear words (an indication of commonness and a lack of education) and the  decline of grammar in general (people who used txt spk or modern abbreviations like FYI should be taken out the back and shot).

Personally I think this view is a load of old bollocks.

There you go; I’m uneducated and have a limited grasp of the language because I’ve used the term ‘bollocks’. Maybe I should have used ‘tosh and nonsense’ instead (actually I quite like that as well), but I enjoy the sound of ‘a load of old bollocks’ – it’s colourful, descriptive and is fit for purpose.

Similarly, when I’m seriously exasperated by something I’m prone to exclaim ‘for fuck’s sake’ or ‘FFS’ if I’m using the polite version in company – either way I’m apparently committing serious offences against the English language. However, it fits exactly the feeling I want to convey; ‘for heaven’s sake’ ‘for goodness sake’ and ‘for Pete’s sake’ just doesn’t cut the mustard (no offence Pete whoever you are). And if it’s good enough for Prince George then damn it, it’s good enough for me. Plus I’m working class west of Scottish so the urge to profane now and again is simply part and parcel of my genetic make-up.

I don’t use swear words excessively; most of the time those who do make me feel uncomfortable. I say most of the time because there are some people who make swearing sound a very natural and rich part of their vocabulary whilst there are others who simply make it harsh and ugly. The Irish are good at swearing (In Bruges just wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny without the liberal swearing); of course often the Irish replace the ‘U’ with an ‘E’ to make a more socially acceptable Feck. The Scots are pretty good at it (Billy Connolly also not as funny without swearing) and the Mancs also do it well (Shameless). Cockneys I’m less sure about.

I appreciate that many people find swearing offensive and whilst I respect their views, I definitely don’t agree that people who use swear words are defiling the language. Approve of them or not, many are good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon words that have as much a right to be in existence as any other.
There are loads of non-swear words that I find much more offensive and where I wouldn’t swear in the company of people I don’t know, and some that I do, there are plenty of people who happily use their offensive words in front of me…and I’m talking about racist, sexist and homophobic terms here. However, words in themselves aren’t offensive, they’re just a jumble of letters, it’s how people use them that can often dictate whether they’re offensive or not.

I also heartily approve when people – usually the young – take words and turn their meanings on their heads, or invent completely knew terms. It keeps language fresh and interesting, but that doesn’t mean the old words should be packed away never to be used again, it simply means that as time goes by our well of words becomes deeper and deeper.

To me language is a living organism that is constantly evolving – words should be set free and allowed to roam wherever they want to go, not restricted to a dingy cell where they remain staid and static for evermore as some academics would have it.

Some academics, but not modern lexicographers it seems. I was blown away when I watched this clip for the first time (thanks Julie Hume). Erin McKean is simply inspirational and very funny and, amen, I worship at her church. It’s a bit lengthy but anyone interested in the English language should enjoy it…unless they’re like the pseudo-intellectuals I mentioned at the start who no doubt would completely dismiss it because Erin’s American and what the hell do Americans know about English.

Anyway, back to the swearing. The King’s Speech being designated an ‘R’ rating because of swearing rankled. You can blow people to smithereens in any manner of glamorously gruesome ways and that’s absolutely socially acceptable but a stammering Prince swearing is deigned too much for anyone under 17 to be able to handle. Doesn’t that strike you as being worryingly skewed logic?

It reminded me of a story about a B52 aircrew who were told to remove the word ‘fuck’ from the fuselage of their bombers because it was far too offensive.

Think about the irony of that little gem.