Saturday, 31 March 2012

Creating a Book Title

A book title needs to be eye catching and thought provoking enough to make the potential reader want to take it from the bookseller’s shelf for a browse, or in the digital world, go to the product description and free read section on Amazon.                                   
     Of course it’s difficult to encapsulate much in the smallest of synopses that is the title. In the few words available, the writer is trying to distil down the essence of the book to a stand-alone statement that can represent the work; no easy task.
     It helps if the book covers a specific event or is a biography. In these cases the titles normally select themselves. The same applies to a poem or a song where the writer probably starts with a title. Most novels however are completely fictitious and the writer often has no idea at the outset how the story will evolve, so picking a title up front might just be work in progress.
       My first novel is based on a fairly simple premise. A Stuart family, who claim royal descent from Bonnie Prince Charlie, try to get their charismatic young scion onto the throne of a newly independent Scotland, displacing the Hanoverians who usurped them more than three hundred years ago.
     Restoration is therefore a legitimate title, either alone or combined with Stuart. However there are already a few books with the title, Restoration. Stepping back from restoration, the Stuarts are trying to make a comeback, so titles like The Comeback King suggest themselves, although after three hundred years the idea of a comeback might seem trite.
     I ran for a long time with, The Next King of Scotland, as a working title since that is the ultimate point of the story. There was always the risk of confusion with Giles Foden’s, Last King of Scotland, covering the tyranny of Idi Amin through the eyes of a Scottish doctor. In the end I thought it a bit too close and settled finally on, The Stuart Agenda, which added an appropriate conspiratorial note to the family name.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. E-book at, and Barnes and Noble. Paperback at

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Gardening with a Wooden Spoon

I'm stirring  my porridge this morning with that most traditional of utensils, a wooden spoon. However this morning it seems bigger than normal, heavy in the pan with the memory of yesterday's fifth Scottish defeat in a row in this years six nation's rugby championship. You could argue that they played well enough in their first three games, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but in the last two games they were lacklustre, playing like folk who don't put salt in their porridge and add insult to injury by smothering it with syrup.
     It wouldn't have happened with my Stuart hero, Robert, in charge as captain of the Scottish team. He has a reputation for at least winning against the Auld Enemy and usually France too, keeping the eponymous utensil out of Scotland's cutlery drawer. Well, there's always next year and there might be a new coach so hope springs eternal in the tartan heart.
After a few warm spring days, I'm now going to plant out my onion sets. I had a fabulous crop last year after a warm spring and very liberal doses of wood ash. I'm putting in 250, a nice mixture of Stuttgarter Giant,Stur BC 20, Hercules F1 and Centurion F1, so I hope that the plant labels don't go astray and I know what I'm lifting in the autumn. Meanwhile the garlic planted in October is now nine inches high (see photo) and promising a good crop. In the next few weeks I'll plant one row of potatoes. It has to be Pink Fir Apple. I love its earthy new potato flavour and its keeps well right through the winter. Its a fun potato as well, taking up knobly shapes that can be truly naughty! Only downside is a tendency to blight. 

While we get good crops of blackcurrants and redcurrants, I'm missing the raspberrys that we've had in previous gardens. The photo shows a new row of Glen Ample, a summer fruiter which will hopefully live up to its bounteous name.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-book and paperback at and

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Caviar and Cod Roe

My first visit to Russia took place in 1988. It was towards the end of the Breshnev period when the Communist party still had a firm grip on the levers of power. The visit took place in the middle of a cold grim winter which enhanced the sense of stagnation  that pervaded everything. Nothing seemed to work and the Western idea of service was non-existent. In addition I was on a mission impossible. I was a new Chemicals Marketing Manager for my ICI Division, sent there to negotiate a technology and sales deal dreamt up at head office in London. The truth was that the technology didn't really work very well and ICI didn't have much capacity to sell them the chemical they wanted. On top of that my Russian contact told me that if he didn't get a deal he would be sent to Siberia, so no pressure there.The shining light in the unremitting gloom was the opportunity to dine at very exclusive hard currency restaurants that catered for approved foreign businessmen. That was tempered slightly by the fact that the menu was always the same. Piles of caviar to start, washed down with sweet bubbly. I had always wondered what caviar would taste like and since my only other fish roe experience involved the more humble cod, I had a natural basis for comparing the eggs of both species.

 I still have vivid memories of the fishing boats coming into Wick Harbour in the 1950's and 60's with large catches of cod and accompanying roe in February and can still see my mother carefully boiling the whole roe in salted water, taking great care not to burst it before slicing and frying coated in flour. Its salty fishy sweetness is a unique flavour with echoes of foie gras that for me is a true delicacy. You've guessed, I much prefer it to the product from the sturgeon. Sadly the cod has been one of the major victims of overfishing around the UK and Canada. Only Iceland, more careful with its cod than its banks, has operated a conservation policy that has maintained viable fishing stocks.
When buying the product from a fishmonger try to avoid the very large pale coloured offerings and select smaller pink ones, making sure the skin isn't burst. Boil for around half an hour in salted water  and allow to cool before slicing. It freezes well at this stage so no need to over consume.
It makes an excellent warm starter. Just coat the slices in flour and fry for a few minutes on either side until golden brown. It needs to be washed down with a delicate white, Pouilly Fume works well. Bon appetit. 

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-book and papperback at and

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Stuart Agenda and Scottish Nationalism

Authors shouldn't really have favourite characters in their own books but I can't help admiring Angela Brown, the feline Scottish Independence Party politician in my novel, The Stuart Agenda. As leader, she finally steers Scotland to independence in the 2030's, at the same time anointing Robert Stuart as King of Scotland, displacing the Hanoverians in a new constitutional settlement. In my story, the UK Conservatives, weary of a generation long set of coalitions and compromises, ditch their unionist principles to achieve unencumbered political power in England where they have always been the natural majority. 
 The current crop of Tories haven't yet reached that point and are sticking up for the Union. At least the debate is now alive as the political system begins to take the wily Alex Salmond and his SNP seriously. That means being difficult about what questions might be asked in a referendum. The canny Mr Salmon wants to cover his options with two questions. Do the scots want outright independence? Or might they prefer 'independence light' where many more powers would be devolved? Mr Cameron wants it kept simple, a straight yes/no on full independence, knowing that the answer is likely to be no, after which he will devolve a few more crumbs as yet undefined.
The London propaganda machine has also whirred into action, highlighting all the difficulties of separation- The currency; still in the pound but without fiscal union, a recipe for a re-run of the Euro problem? How long will north Sea oil last to maintain a Scottish treasury?The Faslane nuclear submarine base- The SNP want rid but at what cost and who will pay? Would Scotland have to apply to join the EU? These are all valid questions that have been faced by many fragmenting empires and this one isn't very different.
But the Scots also have serious questions to ask of the SNP. The first is this. How do they propose to keep the lights on. Meeting Kyoto obligations, forbidding nuclear power stations and building acres of windmills is  an energy death sentence. Scots surely don't want to live with such a naive policy made in the days when the SNP never dreamed that they might have to impliment it. Let's hope that they are big enough to change it. Angela Brown certainly does in The Stuart Agenda.
For me it makes the point that Scottish nationalism is too important to be represented by a single party, restricting Scots to vote for only one vision of the future. We need more independence parties to give a broader range of options for the kind of country that Scotland might become. In due course this might be achieved by some of the mainstream political parties in Scotland opting to represent the nationalist cause from their political perspectives, be they left, right or centre. 
Alex Salmond is also being ultra cautious in stating up front that the Queen and hence her Hanoverian descendants would remain as sovereigns of an independent Scotland. That policy is of course challenged to destruction in The Stuart Agenda, where the people of Scotland are consulted on who their future Head of State should be. When Norway split from Sweden in the early twentieth century, they kicked out the Swedish monarchy and appointed a Danish Prince as King. When the Irish split off they formed a republic.
So the story has a long way to run but needs more passionate input from the Scots. The Westminster establishment will be more moved by a million Scots taking to the streets of Edinburgh than by all the speeches of Alex Salmond.  

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-book and paperback at and amazon

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Lanzarote 4- La Graciosa

The view from Manrique’s Mirador del Rio at the north end of Lanzarote is the island of La Graciosa, reached by an excellent ferry service from the village of Orzola, an old fishing port on the north east coast. La Graciosa was uninhabited until the end of the nineteenth century, when the first colonists arrived to work a salt fish factory. As evidenced by the large number of salt pans at different locations on Lanzarote, salt played a large part in the early economy, both for salting fish and for export. Early settlers on La Graciosa had to endure hard living conditions without a local supply of drinking water as well as the strong winds, difficult land and isolation.
     Nowadays small scale fishing is still a local occupation, there is even a fish shop, but tourism has taken over as the main source of income. The main settlement, Caleta del Sebo is well supplied with restaurants bars and accommodation for a ‘get away from it all’ holiday.
     The hinterland is dominated by four volcanoes which determine the network of paths and tracks that attract walkers and cyclists, mainly on day trips.   Playa de las Conchas on the north east coast, below Montana Bermeja, is conveniently about an hour's walk from the ferry and has golden sand and an epic view of the smaller uninhabited islands of Montana Clara and Alegranza below.

Further down the same coast is the surfing beach of Baja del Corral, a hidden away Mecca for determined surfers, although the beach there is very rocky but the waves just right, coming straight in from the Atlantic. Montana Amarillo is in the background dominating the south end of La Graciosa.
Finally, I was surprised to see what I think is a relatively recent addition to the tourist menus in Lanzarote. I'm referring to limpets of course, albeit smothered in garlic mojo sauce, rather like snails in France. That comparison isn't inappropriate but the rubbery limpets make the snails look soft and tender. I'm sure that they were only ever eaten in the North of Scotland in very hard times which could descend on Lanzarote when the current generation of affluent European pensioners hand the baton to their impoverished successors. 
I'm looking forward to going back next winter.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. E-book at and Paperback at