The Witch’s Familiar

It is difficult to think of too many words in the English language with such differing perceptions than ‘witch’. Although they may be creations of mere fantasy, witches are commonly portrayed and depicted as evil villains with quirky, though sinister powers, while in some literary cases they are treated with a greater degree of warmth and reverence.

Let’s begin first by comparing the words ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’. On first inspection, these would be nothing more than male and female equivalents, but wizards have traditionally been viewed as wise, sage-like individuals with maybe a hint of a mischievous streak. They predominantly use their power for good, and their portrayal in literature and in the media throughout the centuries has made them appear like amiable men who just happen to possess magical powers.

With witches come plenty more baggage. They have regularly been stereotyped to be middle-aged women who own cats, take broomsticks out for a joy ride, and contain powers of unearthly proportions. They are treated with the utmost suspicion and wariness, perhaps inspired by their supposed persecution in medieval times.

‘Witch’ is a word commonly used to describe an unreasonable or disagreeable woman, whereas calling somebody a ‘wizard’ suggests that they are gifted at a particular subject or activity; or possess some kind of unique quality.

Such usage is further extended in artistic works as notable as The Wizard Of Oz. The eponymous wizard is described as a wonderful ‘wiz of a wiz’, who lives in the glitzy emerald city. Meanwhile, the story also contains the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East, the primary antagonists who have evil character traits and so don’t compare well.

The use of witches for the purposes of fictional villainy continue in another classic 20th century work; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The arch-nemesis on this occasion is the White Witch, who, while rarely displaying an array of special powers, creates a miserable, despotic landscape and is intent on permanent rule.

This all stems from old-fashioned beliefs and practices, but doesn’t explain why wizards have not been subjected to the same unflattering treatment of their female counterparts. Here is a background of how attitudes towards sorcery have developed and manifested themselves during bygone eras:

Fear of so-called witches was rife during a period of history where figures in authority were innately suspicious of any signs of abnormality. The very notion of magical powers was feared greatly, leading to those accused of being witches facing capital punishment, often through drowning, or being burned at the stake.

The desperation of historical communities to eliminate ‘witches’ was such that hundreds of innocent women were put to death. This reached its peak in the 17th century during the bizarre reign of Matthew Hopkins, where a range of peculiar tests were carried out to theoretically uncover the true nature of unfortunate victims.

Hopkins christened himself as England’s very own Witch-finder General, an unofficial title to pronounce his supposed aptitude for tracking down ‘witches’ and bringing them to justice. A man of fairly humble origin, Hopkins gained nationwide recognition during the English Civil War, making a career through his hypothesis that any woman that floats on water *must* be a witch.

This entire campaign embodies the attitudes surrounding witchcraft during that era, but perhaps recent literature might also have been a factor. A little over 30 years previously, William Shakespeare had produced his darkest and most thought-provoking of plays, where witches feature prominently.

The three witches portrayed in Macbeth are both mysterious and powerful in equal measure. They have the capability to see into the future, and ultimately ensure that a violent series of events driven by temptation and a fierce yearning for power, plays out with typically tragic consequences.

They appear in the opening scene, visualising their next meeting, where Macbeth is also present. After the witches pronounce that he will shortly take the title of Thane of Cawdor and eventually become king of Scotland, Macbeth becomes intrigued by their powers, and they act as a driving force behind his gory actions during the rest of the play.

The portrayal of the witches throughout Macbeth is open to interpretation, but they are shown to be creatures that spread death and danger through their ability to prey upon fundamental human flaws. It is mixed with terrifying imagery such as the cauldron scene, where a clear distinction is made between the witches and the human characters.

It is a triumph for Shakespeare’s vivid imagination, but as the centuries have passed and witches have become recognised as as solely supernatural beings, their presence in formal adult literature has disappeared and they now reign supreme in children’s books, and other media.

Many of most renowned children’s authors of recent years have involved witches in their stories, and in most instances they are considerably more benign, yet some familiar traits remain. They still ride broomsticks; they still have creepy abilities to conjure harmful apparitions, and they are still treated with more suspicion than wizards.

Yet they are primarily characters of fun, as Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson proved with The Worst Witch and Room on the Broom respectively. However, one giant of children’s literature treated us to his own, entirely different interpretation.

The characterisation and features of The Witches in Roald Dahl’s award-winning book of the same name differs enormously from all that had gone before it. Dahl doesn’t hide from the fact that all witches are women, while he also creates a level of suspense which is rarely so prevalent in novels aimed towards an audience of children aged 13 and under.

Maybe that’s why the characterisation is so distinctive. Dahl’s witches share a hatred of children, and plot to neutralise them by any means possible. They use elaborate accessories to disguise their bald heads; clawed fingers, and square feet, and answer to the Grand High Witch.

The Grand High Witch personifies all the negative connotations surrounding witches. She is deceptive and ruthless, and possibly Dahl’s darkest creation. When she removes her mask to reveal a disembodied face, it represents another departure from the stereotypes.

However, at no point does Dahl discriminate between witch and wizard, and shows that the portrayal of such beings is open to interpretation. Now that it’s generally accepted that witches were not at large during the English Civil War and the preceding years, they have no clear definition. That many fictional witches have similar traits is simply a reinforcement of traditional inspirations.

We even see that in the world of video-gaming, where the primary antagonist in the Banjo-Kazooie series is a green-skinned witch called Gruntilda. At the opposite end of the spectrum alongside the likes of Dahl, we have dramatic portrayals in films like The Witches of Eastwick, who are three apparently normal women who discover underlying powers.

Sitting almost slap bang in the middle is the most notorious series of novels in recent times, the Harry Potter books. Author J.K. Rowling has created her own world, with its own unique and clearly defined identity, which has permanently altered the thinking behind how witches and wizards can be depicted in literature.

Aside from The Wizard of Oz, this is the only example within this article that offers the chance of direct comparison between the male and female characters. And on the whole, witches and wizards in Harry Potter are treated predominantly as equals.

Both witches and wizards practice in the Dark Arts; they both have equal rights to an education, and are shown to be just as gifted as each other. Even Quidditch is a level playing field, as teams are made up by both men and women.

The only slight disparity is the lack of women in the top jobs, such as at the Ministry of Magic, but on the whole, the fact that Hogwarts itself is shown to be founded by an equal number of witches and wizards (two each) states the parity that exists. Indeed, discrimination in Harry Potter is largely limited to bloodline, and prejudice towards magical creatures.

One line that sums up the amelioration of the word ‘witch’ appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While escaping the campsite at the Quidditch World Cup, Harry and his friends run into Draco Malfoy, who informs them slyly that Hermione Granger may be at risk from the Death Eaters, who are in the act of persecuting Muggles.

‘Hermione’s a witch’, snarls Harry in response.

This may seem like a very unremarkable, average piece of dialogue; after all it is only three words long and may seem as though Harry is just stating a fact. However, the implication of this line shows that the state of being a witch is a good thing, something to be proud of.

To illustrate the point, to refer to somebody as a witch in most forms of literature and other media suggests that that character is evil and/or untrustworthy. As Harry and Hermione are clearly protagonists in this particular series, we know immediately that Harry’s remark is far from disparaging; indeed it is meant as a compliment.

And that sums up the journey that fictional witches have embarked on over time, as historic and medieval beliefs towards their supposed existence have become gradually more obsolete. The stereotypes still remain, and they are used for the purpose of entertainment and extravagance, but the wider range of depictions now in evidence provides a belief that they can obtain something close to equal footing with fictional wizards.

The Young One

The Young One has all the power
Fresh-faced and oozing authority
He rules with an iron fist
Leading some to question his sanity

His troops march in unison
Striding forth like hardy chessmen
Making ripples and attracting wary glances
From outsiders who accuse him of seeking attention

Enclosed in an autonomous sphere
Shrouded in secret and mindful silence
He keeps his cards tight to his chest
Though we think we know what lies underneath

Dreams of domination and conquests galore
Achieved through gunfire and nuclear war
Coolly and tactfully he bides his time
Leaving the enemy to wonder just what lies in store

The Young One carries all the weight;
His thirst for supremacy will never abate
Nobody has the right to challenge his rule
For he is the untouchable head of state

 

Book Review – Under Your Skin

Floating between the aisles of UK bookstores is a very regular pastime, and it is the crime/psychological thrillers that currently receive the top billing. A great number of these novels catch my eye, but to read them I need to be thoroughly compelled by the suspenseful synopsis and review quotes that adorn the cover. It plays out as a measured yet unsophisticated selective process.

One of the more recent additions to the promoted list is Lie with me by Sabine Durrant. On the surface, this seemed both the ideal book and the ideal author for me to continue my sample of works that engage the many complex workings of the mind. However, I felt a duty to start at the beginning and read Durrant’s debut novel, Under Your Skin.

Durrant had dabbled in young adult fiction previously, but this was her first attempt at appeasing a more mature audience. The transition is not entirely seamless, but she immediately shows a clear aptitude for capturing the extent of human emotion and thought processes, as well as a very descriptive and dynamic way with words.

One feature of psychological thrillers has become increasingly ubiquitous, and that is the first person narrative, which is already beginning to lack originality. The protagonist on this occasion is Gaby Mortimer, a daytime television presenter for a well-known magazine show, and thus a minor celebrity.

Despite displaying a persona of calmness and reassurance in front the camera to act as her public face, in reality Gaby is socially insecure and self-conscious. She is married to financier Phillip and has a daughter called Millie, who is often looked after by her Polish nanny, Marta.

She also isn’t entirely likeable, but Durrant attempts for the reader to sympathise  with Gaby after she discovers the dead body of a young woman while out running, but then in an unexpected about turn, becomes the main suspect in the subsequent police investigation.

This has far-reaching consequences, as she is then forced to spend a night in the cells, she is stood down from her presenting job, and then has to cope with a group of reporters taking residence outside her home.

The police investigation is led by DI Perivale, who it appears has a peculiar obsession with Gaby, seemingly at the expense of following up alternative lines of enquiry. It all adds to the intrigue, but ultimately the police procedure is flawed, and Durrant is guilty of opting for an unreasonable amount of artistic license.

A vast amount of the novel sees Gaby battling her increasingly frenzied thoughts as her life begins to unravel, while at the same time enlisting the help of a crafty journalist to investigate the murder of Ania Dudek in an attempt to clear her name. The pair have a neat camaraderie, but a tinge of suspicion exists on both sides as interesting facts about the case come to light.

Throughout Gaby’s ordeal, husband Phillip – admittedly well on the road to estrangement – is on a work-related trip to Singapore, but returns by the end for the mystery to be solved in flimsy fashion. The ending (I’m giving nothing away!) may divide opinion, but for me it was a massive disappointment.

After considering all of the evidence provided in the novel and questioning how Gaby and Ania had become inextricably linked, the solution was far less original than I would have expected. An unsatisfactory conclusion to a story that never had me completely gripped.

The entire narrative is played out in Gaby’s confused, indeed slightly traumatised thoughts. She is clearly a complex and vulnerable individual, but at times the prose is a little too long-winded and the supporting characters are merely spare parts who vanish into thin air by the end.

On the whole, reading Under Your Skin has made me think twice about trying out Lie with me’. While my no means a bad novel, it is one that for me could have been so much more, had Durrant cut out the waffle and the poor dialogue, and cooked up a more effective resolution.

Book Review – I See You

It is often said that after a very successful debut novel, it is extremely difficult to provide something just as warmly received the second time around. Indeed, it is the same in all branches of the arts, with musicians under pressure to ensure that their second album is every bit as good as the first, while many film sequels aren’t met with the same level of endearment as the original.

Author Clare Mackintosh provided an instant hit with I Let You Go, a chilling psychological tale of tragedy and isolation. The plot twists left us completely stunned and filled with awe, having been led to believe one thing only to realise the truth was something completely different. In short, it was an absorbing, compelling read.

After the awards that came her way as a result of producing a standout entry among the plethora of psychological thrillers that currently inhabit the literary sphere, Mackintosh set to work on I See You, another novel that intertwines the nitty-gritty of a police investigation with narration from the main protagonist.

We are immediately introduced to Zoe Walker, a 40-year-old mother of two who works for a London estate agent. She left her first husband Matt some years previously, and now new partner Simon – a journalist at the Daily Telegraph – has recently moved in, much to the resentment of her son Justin.

Justin works at a café owned by next door neighbour Melissa, who is Zoe’s closest friend and confidant, always seeking a new business opportunity. Daughter Katie is a budding actress who suddenly finds an opportunity to showcase her talents in a theatre production of Twelfth Night, falling for her streetwise producer in the process.

Zoe is, generally speaking, a very unremarkable human being. She complains about her job and the daily slog of commuting to and from work; she is overprotective of her children, and she is besotted by Simon, with whom she has a touchy-feely, but not entirely open relationship.

However, her life changes when she notices her photo placed randomly in the London Gazette, and further investigation shows that a new female face is placed in the newspaper each day. It soon emerges that several of these women have been a victim of crime, leading Zoe to move into a state of red alert and to fear everyone around her.

She informs Kelly Swift of the British Transport Police, who has recently been demoted having undergone disciplinary proceedings for assaulting an offender. She uses her vital input in Zoe’s case to earn a three-month placement at the Metropolitan Police’s Murder Investigation Team and a partnership with the well-respected DI Nick Rampello.

As the case progresses and more leads are found by police, it becomes clear that a website has been created that allows people to download the daily commutes of countless individuals – including Zoe – through the London underground network, revealing a tremendously sophisticated criminal operation.

Kelly continues to impress with her detective work, while Zoe becomes increasingly suspicious of those around her, becoming completely enveloped by the case, and the fear that anybody she encounters on her daily commute could subject her to a brutal attack.

It is here where Mackintosh excels the most, capturing the true depth of human emotions such as fear and vulnerability. She also keeps you guessing as to who the offender really is, and while on this occasion the truth isn’t so well hidden, the rather violent denouement is a real page turner, purely due to the tension that builds during a gripping final encounter.

The themes of the novel are very clever and thought provoking, but I See You is not quite at the level of I Let You Go. Many of the characters are incidental and lacking any real substance, while the twists don’t quite have the same effect. It is still a good read which raises questions until the very last page. And after reading said page, the prospect of a sequel seems not altogether fanciful.

A Rueful Regime

The first few weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency were always going to be eventful. The thinly veiled objective was to set about destroying the scarcely blemished legacy of predecessor Barack Obama by implementing a range of controversial and radical policies that were outlined during the election campaign.

There was universal disdain when he shamefully spoke of banning all Muslims from entering the United States, as well as anger in Mexico after vowing to build a huge wall across the border between the two nations. Those claims seemed far-fetched at the time. After all, he still needed to win an election. But that he did, and the former businessman has immediately set about making them a reality.

It all began at his inaugural address, a bombastic display of fierce and furious rhetoric, all uttered in front of a crowd of (I suspect) quietly seething onlookers. For many in the United States and across the globe, it was a day which confirmed that their worst fears had been realised, as someone who showcased some of the least desirable human values and characteristics gained passage to the White House and all the power it brings.

Some of the more optimistic members of the sizeable percentage of the US population that is against Trump pledged a willingness to give him a chance and see how things would play out. Surely he wouldn’t be as cruel and subjective as he was suggesting he would be during his grudge match with Hillary Clinton? He said all those things so he could win an election, right?

Wrong. A series of social media outbursts and tense press conferences in the run up to his inauguration hinted that Trump would never allow anyone to undermine his authority. Not the media; not the Clinton supporters still raging at his triumph, and not even the most distinguished of Hollywood actresses such as Meryl Streep; disgracefully lambasted for expressing an opinion – and one shared by many.

After only an approximate number of 250,000 people gathered outside the US Capitol building for the ceremony on January 20, the tone was set for the new administration’s relationship with the media. Following a series of accusations from Trump himself, new White House press secretary Sean Spicer led the assault, erroneously asserting that the crowd was the highest ever for such an event.

This was a lie, and Spicer knew that all too well. At a time where fake news seems to be  ubiquitous in muddying the editorial waters and misleading the public, this unsophisticated remark from such a high ranking government official was not only irresponsible, it  has left the people doubtful as to whether they can trust the legitimacy of White House press statements. Not a good idea when faith in politicians worldwide seems to be at an all-time low.

A week into Trump’s reign came the visit of UK Prime Minister Theresa May, which the media on both sides of the Atlantic never tired of serenading as his first meeting with a foreign leader. For May it was a bid to secure the best possible trade deal and the continued endurance of the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries, the importance of which was added to by the upcoming departure of the UK from the European Union.

Trump has been consistently unequivocal in his support for the UK’s decision to leave the EU, a process that will dominate the political arena in the months to come. He is unlikely to change his stance on that matter, but Theresa May has been able to convince him of the benefits of NATO. Be grateful for small mercies.

Indeed, when facing the customary media conference during her trip to the States, May openly stated that she would not hesitate to tell her counterpart if she disagreed with him on a particular issue. That it seemed, was typical of her character – throughout her time on the cabinet she has come across as steely, resilient and single-minded.

But she even went as far as to announce that Trump would make a state visit to the UK later in the year. A dubious promise given the widespread hatred that exists for Trump, and one which was to have severe ramifications barely 24 hours later.

For Trump then passed an executive order, restricting entry to the United States for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.  The order amounted to the groundless and unjust persecution of millions of innocent individuals, with these nations unfairly targeted despite no evidence that any are involved in terrorism.

It is oppression of the kind that shouldn’t exist in the 21st century, let alone in a country which likes to be known as the Land of the Free. As the new president, Trump can now claim to be the leader of the Free World. Instead he is using his office to forcibly remove people from US territory, simply because of the country that they happen to be from, or because they are seeking to escape bloody regimes and landscapes overseas.

The level of disgust resulting from the order has been unsurprising, understandable and completely justified. Some have questioned the legality of such a policy, with Supreme Court judges taking a dim view, but despite his failure to retain its enforcement, a begrudging Trump has stuck to his guns and decided to rid himself of anybody who is against the new measures.

Take the acting Attorney General Sally Yates. She spoke out and was made to pay with her job, which was a particularly worrying development. On Twitter I likened the decision to 1930s/40s book burning ceremonies, where the most notorious 20th century leaders would create a cult of personality where any contrasting or dissenting voices would be silenced without good reason.

Such vilification for simply having a perfectly reasonable and well-considered opinion is making a rather ominous comeback through the guise of social media. Well respected public figures are voicing their opposition to Trump’s values and measures, at the expense of receiving vile messages. This represents a rather frightening aspect of modern societal attitudes.

The executive order may have been put on hold, but the resulting barrage of tweets from Trump, which have basically lampooned dignified public figures such as court judges and elected representatives, have been ill-becoming of a national president, and frankly irresponsible.

As was Theresa May’s refusal to condemn the executive order, a decision which saw her go down in the estimation of many. Having hot-footed it to Turkey, she was admittedly put in a tricky position, but she failed to stand up for our values and reinforce the promotion of human rights and in doing so received the criticism she probably deserved.

I, like many other UK citizens, do not want Donald Trump to make an official state visit. However, any notion that he will be barred seems preposterous, given that the United States is our greatest ally. That it has elected a buffoon as its president will hardly change that.

In the weeks since his installation, Trump has never been away from the headlines, many of which have involved crackpot new measures, social media backchat or a possible scandal. Just look at the resignation today of Michael Flynn, the US National Security Advisor, for apparently discussing sanctions for Russia before the new administration assumed office. The dust just isn’t being allowed to settle.

Not even a month has passed, but already so much has happened and so much has been said, and you would be surprised if that didn’t remain the case during the years to come. One striking (often described as eerie) moment of the inaugural address saw Trump quote the Batman villain Bane, promising to ‘give it (America) back to you, the people‘. From what we have seen so far, Trump also favours Bane’s favoured choice of punishment: Death by exile.

 

Writing Without Hands

As those old iPhone television adverts used to profess, there is an app for just about…anything. Each obscure subject or facet of our everyday lives now seems to be supplemented by an app, which is designed to remove the supposed stress and preserve many valuable seconds of our precious time.

In terms of writing, things are no different. Technology giants Google and Apple have developed their own voice dictation programmes which allow users to speak into their mobile devices, which transfer the words you utter into the written mode.

It does all the writing for you, without the need to type. Isn’t that ingenious!

Of course, this is very common now when it comes to submitting online searches. Just tap the amplifier icon on your mobile phone or tablet and say ‘Ok Google’ in your cheeriest voice, and you are away, although make sure you speak clearly, as the kind female voice that responds to your search could end up telling you about something completely different..

Which leads me on to the subject of accuracy. The ability of many applications to recognise one’s voice and pick up the full spectrum of words, phrases and sayings cannot be underestimated. These are very strong and capable resources, but mistakes can creep in, and sifting through the prose to make the necessary edits can be time consuming.

In my experience, speaking too fast can be an issue which throws the application off course, especially when uttering a word which sounds very much like another. And then we have homophones, which can leave the text sprinkled with absurd grammatical errors before the inevitable proofreading session ensues.

My other main concern here is punctuation. This is a vital part of my writing style, so how does the technology know when I would like to use a comma, or a dash, or indeed an exclamation mark? This reservation alone has me reaching for the keyboard, where the backspace key provides undying reassurance.

But in my case, the overriding fact of the matter is that I write better than I speak. When explaining a subject such as this orally, I have a tendency to hesitate and find myself searching for the correct term or ideal point of discussion, whereas when I’m writing it comes fairly easily.

To put it plainly, while I would love the thought of saving time and energy by using a voice dictation app, using the keyboard/keypad prevents my ramblings from becoming a disjointed, convoluted mess of tag questions, misplaced verbs and incomprehensible utterances.

The ability to write eloquently and interactively for various audiences is the biggest skill that I possess, and I’m reluctant to jeopardise that it favour of adopting these superb, resourceful, but ultimately non-foolproof applications.

Moreover, the thought processes that go into writing in the conventional manner cannot be underestimated. Using the written mode requires a unique method of brain stimulation, while the spoken mode is something different entirely.

Top 10 random facts I learned in 2016

As a lover of random facts and general knowledge, I am always looking to pick up pieces of trivia which could come in useful for answering quiz questions I may be faced with in the future. Even if such facts are only needed once in my life, retaining them would have been more than worthwhile.

So as we look back on 2016, here are 10 of the most obscure facts I obtained during the previous year:

  1. Despite its name, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919 did not originate in Spain. It actually started in the US state of Kansas, but due to Spain’s neutrality during the First World War, the press was free to report on the illness while it spread there.
  2. The inspirations behind the fairy tales Rumplestiltskin and Beauty and the Beast are at least 4,000 years old.
  3. The 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, was once fined for exceeding the speed limit on his horse.
  4. Protmusis is a type of pub quiz game which originated in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and is popular among students.
  5. The first country to allow women to vote was New Zealand, in 1890.
  6. The term ‘Cyberspace’ was coined by the author William Gibson in his 1982 book Burning Chrome.
  7. Cormoran is a giant associated with the folklore of St. Michael’s Mount in the English county of Cornwall.
  8. In 2001, Argentina was in such political turmoil that they had five presidents in the space of two weeks.
  9. The longest winning run by a top-flight football club is 27, by Welsh side The New Saints. This run is still currently ongoing.
  10. DNA was not first discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson. It was actually discovered by Swiss biologist Johannes Friedrich Meischer in 1869

Over the next 12 months I hope to be a few steps further on the way to becoming a top quiz player.

Happy New Year!

My 2016 – Writing

This calendar year has been one of major transition in terms of my writing exploits. Whereas in previous years I have had a basic agenda which has followed very consistent, unchanging structures, 2016 has seen me embrace new styles; explore new avenues; sample new media, and handle a parting of ways.

I had decided late in 2015 that I would finish my regular contribution to A Different League after three years of dedicated and indefatigable service, in order to have more time to myself, and focus on other writing pursuits. It was a choice which hadn’t been taken lightly, but one that I was sure would benefit me in the long run.

I owe that website an incredible amount. They gave me my first opportunity to write for an online audience about one of my greatest areas of expertise and bestowed all kinds of responsibilities upon me regardless of my previous lack of experience. Within months I was writing various different articles, and was even able to upload them using its Content Management System.

Then came the route into magazine writing and eventually the greater creative freedom afforded by the migration to a Fanatix-powered web host in May 2015. It was through this where I truly developed my skills and became the expressive writer I am now, and as such the standard of what I was producing increased immeasurably.

I had always gone the extra mile for the site since beginning in May 2013, but I decided to take things an extra step further for my final flourish, completing preview articles for all 380 Premier League matches during the 2015-16 season – which amounted to a minimum of 6,000 words per week.

Then I took on the responsibility of writing a whole batch of season review pieces, singly doing work which would ordinarily be done by a team of four. I then took sole ownership of A Different League’s Euro 2016 coverage, writing 29 articles of at least 500 words throughout its month-long duration.

In my humble opinion, the quality of those articles are incredible when compared to the material I was producing when I started out. When I left A Different League it was with many good wishes, positive feedback, and a sense that it was mission accomplished.

Despite this particular separation, I remain a contributor to the Soccer 360 magazine, a publication whose production values never cease to amaze. The articles I have been assigned this year have occasionally sent me away from my comfort zone and I often wonder whether I’m as good as my fellow writers, but seeing the finished product is always extremely reassuring, while it serves as a massive degree of vindication for the work I produce.

I look forward to hopefully contributing to Soccer 360 for many years to come, but it is now just one of many writing ventures I’m working on. My main one is a book about football, where I take on the role of modern historian and look back on a five-year period just past the turn of the century with the help of childhood memories. It has become a forensically detailed account of events, with no shortage of personal touches. Now over 50,000 words long and counting, I expect for it to be completed by March or April 2017.

Although exceptionally happy with what I have written thus far, I am still mindful of the fact that I need to find a clearer definition of its purpose, and whether or not the sheer detail I have incorporated into the book will appeal to a wider audience. Those who prefer to see short snippets of information will be sorely disappointed.

And of course there is this blog. The blog that I began back in February, then gave up on, and later decided to return to with open arms. I may never master the art of running a successful blog, with regards to the number of page views, likes or comments it receives, but it provides an ideal platform to document my many musings, pointless or otherwise.

Returning to this blog reminded me of the need for freedom. Back in September I tried to give myself a new online identity called Everyday Literature, where I was required to become a literary expert almost overnight. Lessons were quickly learned and the project was soon shelved, so in this way, 2016 has taught me to show a greater appreciation of what I’ve already got, and what I’ve already achieved,

My 2016 – Films

Never before have I watched so many movies in a year than in 2016. It came to be a personal resolution that I made up for lost time and took in many of the quality motion pictures that I had missed over the years, and on the whole it has been a fruitful journey.

Visits to the cinema have been infrequent. Seeing The Revenant was almost a new sensory experience, given the freedom to appreciate and acknowledge the incredible filmmaking feats that it pulls off, from the constantly stunning visuals to the directorial mastery of Alejandro G. Inarritu to the remarkable realism of the CGI.

That film earned Leonardo DiCaprio his long awaited first Academy Award for Best Actor, but the overall execution of the project is where it succeeds the most. I was also lucky enough to see the Best Picture winner itself, Spotlight. This one falls under an entirely different genre, but its equally compelling and thought-provoking and provides a sensitive account of real-life events.

My most recent rendezvous with the big screen was for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, a movie which I had been looking forward to for so long with a mixture of childlike excitement and apprehension. Any fears that it wouldn’t live up to its billing were soon extinguished, as it considerably surpassed my expectations; my face when the credits began to roll was an absolute picture of mesmeric delight.

The special effects on display on that film were beyond anything that I had previously seen, a huge treasure trove of eye-catching imagery. The story was also not to be found wanting, and the anticipation for sequels has already begun.

As with any piece of new technology or any craze that seems to capture the attention of most of my peers or indeed the global population, I was slow on the uptake when it came to using online streaming websites such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. I put this right by accident, getting Amazon Prime unexpectedly after forgetting that I had signed up to the 30-day free trial which then leads to you making an automatic £79 payment to get the application on a permanent basis.

Through Amazon Prime I have managed to discover films which I hadn’t previously come across, such as the truly incredible adaptation of The Book Thief, a movie I would recommend to everyone. I have also had the opportunity to sample films which I didn’t watch at the time of their release.

Among those are the stunningly picturesque Gravity, the engrossing and very English drama  An Education, a brilliant dual acting performance from Matthew McConnaughy and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, and an interesting take on an oft-adapted character where Ian McKellan portrays Mr Holmes.

Over the course of this year I have also gained a much greater understanding of the many processes that go into filmmaking and how each scene is constructed and shot in order to create the finished product. It all amounts to an intriguing array of complexities which are not necessarily appreciated by us viewers.

So for that reason among others this year has been something of a learning experience and has helped me develop a new perspective on film. But all that said, I still remain very selective about the films I watch – they must be intelligent, multi-layered, suspenseful or capable of telling a good story with a clear underlying message.

Here’s to more in 2017!

How I became a confident writer

When I first began as a writer I had no confidence whatsoever, regardless of the faith that was being shown in me by others. At least part of the reason for this was the fact that my breakthrough coincided with the beginning of the most challenging period of my life to date; a time when the once sturdy walls of opportunity began to tumble down around me.

I was only 17 when I sent off two of my less senseless ramblings over to the editors of an established but relatively obscure website called A Different League, which I had discovered through browsing on a more obscure jobs website run by the same people.

I fully expected to be knocked back, and two weeks without a response seemed to confirm that view, but eventually they got back and to my surprise, I was accepted as the latest member of their writing team.

Full of motivation and determined to make an immediately positive impression, my early articles were promising and substantial, but contained more than a hint of using me using all the writing techniques I knew. I was on the brink of achieving my English Language A-Level, yet there was still plenty more I needed to learn.

I soon moved on to writing news articles, which followed a very basic structure, albeit a very rigid one. The subject matter dictated that there was a lot of repetition involved – particularly regarding football transfers – but I was plagued by doubt; constantly worrying about possibly being told that my writing was not good enough, and receiving negative feedback from the online audience.

But the new inroads just kept on coming. Three months down the line and I was asked to write analysis pieces because my writing was deemed to be of a reasonable standard. Another two months and I was given my own project: Feature articles, where I would consult with the website’s editors themselves, and then write a whole new section of content.

The final ‘promotion’ came soon after, where I was very kindly asked to write for the Soccer 360 magazine, only one of the most popular publications of its kind in North America. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, but one which filled me with terror.

I was so inexperienced and the demands were so high. I had to write a 1,750-word article along with two sidebars within a strict timeframe. I also had to conform to strict formatting rules, suggest images and captions, and meet the unfamiliar requirements of writing for a magazine which wasn’t due to be published for two months.

The pressure I felt was unbelievable, removing all sense of happiness and fulfillment at being asked to write an article of such relative prestige. As I wrote my piece I was inwardly cursing myself frequently over my perceived inability to write anything of reasonable quality. I feared the prospect of someone else reading my work and dismissing it as a pile of uninformed garbage.

When I sent my finished article to the magazine, the feedback I received was positive, but minimal. My article was fine, although there were a couple of areas where I needed to make sure the text was ‘timeless’ – in other words relevant at the time when the issue is published rather than only applicable at the time of writing.

Did the fact that I was now a published magazine writer help boost my confidence? Sadly not. I continued writing almost robotically for A Different League before the chance arose for the next Soccer 360 article, which I regrettably turned down due to my nerves.

But I was back soon enough, and this time I had no choice. The Soccer 360 articles were now assigned to its writers without prior consultation, so I was given one of the main feature articles, which I completed to a high standard, according to those who read it.

Over the course of the following year I began to turn my hand to blogs, writing about different subject matters and finding that moving out of my comfort zone resulted in rather disjointed prose. So I realised I needed a clear focus; an objective for every piece of writing I produced in the future.

Having long developed an individual style of writing, I decided to create a more personal, conversational relationship with the reader, and test the boundaries of the style guides to which I was forced to adhere.

The more informal tone of Soccer 360 allowed me to do that, but with A Different League it was a matter of fortune. With the site having been passed over to new administrators in May 2015, I was given total creative freedom on the articles I produced.

By this time my personal circumstances had dramatically improved as a result of taking up my role as a university administrator, and that certainly helped me develop a more positive approach to my writing. But the creative freedom acted as a new lease of life, providing the opportunity to manufacture higher quality content. Although I stuck to the style guide, I could now implement many more of my own personal touches.

With around 3,000 online articles as well as a handful of magazine articles under my belt, I had naturally made great strides and was now an accomplished writer, but for the first time I began to acknowledge it. I had reached a level where only the most important articles provoked a sense of nervous tension.

Nowadays, when I look back on the vast majority of my articles, I read them with pride rather than the urge to cringe with perceived notions of ineptitude. Some of my early writing was not of the greatest standard, but I now realise that it was acceptable enough, and merely just part of the journey to being the writer I am today.