On Reading and Grammar-hawking

“I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because mistakes can outlive their authors’ careers.”

The curse of the professional copywriter is that it becomes impossible to switch off the impulses to proofread and check grammar. Novels are the primary victims of this OCD-strength urge, but any written material may be caught up in the editorial violence of the mind.

Over the last two years, I have been schooling myself in all the ‘classic texts’ that somehow eluded me through my teens and university and in my twenties. This has been for pleasure and instruction. I confess it wasn’t until relatively recently that I read authors like Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, W. Somerset Maughan and even James Joyce. (Forgive me; though for pride’s sake I must say that I had read the likes of Doris Lessing and John Steinbeck so I was not exactly narrowly read.)

These classic titles have benefited from having decades if not centuries of time for proofreaders and editors to refine inconsistencies in a way which aids a smooth reading of the text. I have become unused to finding mistakes in books. With the exception of human error creeping in at the design and layout stage of production, it is pretty unlikely that you will find out-and-out errors. Not so with some contemporary publications.

Interspersed with my reading of classics ancient and modern have been books which demanded my immediate attention for one reason or another, such as research for my co-authored book Building Bridges (Lion 2013) or newly-published books by friends and acquaintances in the writing world. This latter group has been mostly wonderful – Claire Dunn‘s Mortal Fire and Fiona Veitch Smith‘s The Peace Garden most notable among them – but the occasional book has irritated my grammar-hawking sensitivity.

There used to be a clear divide between traditionally-published and self-published books. Now this line is blurred, but one thing remains the same; publish and be damned by your mistakes. Whether you are an author with a multi-book deal from a major publisher or a self-published enthusiast out to make it on your own, the books you produce will last as long as your writing career, if not longer.

I know from talking with friends that I am not the only book-buyer who is also an OCD-proofreader and Grammar Hawk, so these things have financial implications.

A traditional publisher will invest money in authors, editors and proofreaders to make sure a book is as error-free as possible. Does the host of co-publishers and self-publishers make the same commitment? They’d better, if they want to avoid planting flags on every page which scream ‘Amateur! Amateur!’ because you can be sure there is a grammar hawk poised to swoop on the plump and feathery pigeon of your book and tear it to shreds.


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Hansard and the House of Commons

I recently learned that the book Building Bridges, which I co-authored with David Alton, was mentioned in a House of Commons session. Speaking in a debate on issues requiring attention before the summer recess, Fiona Bruce MP said the following:

(I have highlighted sections and inserted links)

Fiona BruceFiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): This week, I have had a work experience student in my office. Members might say that there is nothing unusual about that, but this young man is different. He is from North Korea. Abandoned by his family as a child, he lived on the streets from the ages of eight to 14, scavenging food. He tried to escape his hopeless life to flee his country only to be caught by Chinese soldiers, returned, imprisoned, tortured, hung upside down, repeatedly beaten and left virtually for dead. He was just 16. He told me:

“They would have killed or imprisoned me for life, but I was still a minor.”

He managed to escape yet again, but was hunted down in China by the police and imprisoned there, where he attempted suicide. Later, after a long international journey involving the selfless kindness of many people, he arrived in the UK, where he is now a student with a hope and future, although he still bears the scars of his early life in many ways. He is still only 24 years old.

He is one remarkable young man from North Korea whose life, after years of terrible suffering, is now changed for ever. Dare we hope for the same for his people? The answer must be a resounding yes. We should indeed hope for a better future for the people of North Korea and do more than just watch and wait for it. We should act. I hear Members ask: but how? In these few minutes, may I suggest some actions at governmental, organisational and individual levels?

As time is brief, I do not propose to refer in detail to the egregious violations of human rights in that country, and the indescribable suffering of the people of North Korea—they have been described in earlier debates in this House and in another place—but I will mention the disappointment at the way in which young Kim Jong-un has dashed hopes and squandered the opportunity for the fresh start that his leadership could have provided. Despite that, there is still hope, and it is right to work for change.

How can we help? First, through practical support for the hundreds of North Korean escapees here in Britain, such as the young man I mentioned, who encounter the shock of trying to integrate into a free society. We can help to educate and equip them for the regime change that will surely come. When it does, there will be a need for leaders in North Korea who understand both its tragic past and the essential concepts for building a free society, such as the rule of law and democratic and human rights. I urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to engage with the North Korean diaspora in that way.

Philanthropic business people can consider supporting social enterprises in North Korea. There are isolated examples of such enterprises, including a shoe factory. Business start-ups provide potential soft power interventions, including through improved employee conditions, such as the very basic one of insisting that wages are paid direct to employees, and not via the state, with its inevitable deductions. At grass-roots level, North Korean people want DVDs, USB drives, radios and mini-computers to be sent to them. The regime’s information blockade is crumbling, as through these items North Koreans have much better awareness of the realities of life in the outside world than they would have done even five or 10 years ago.

On a structural level, improved equipment, technology, and production methods for farms are needed. Support for the constructive work of non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam is to be commended. Could the Department for International Development not consider supporting such NGOs? The excellent work of the British Council, which, on a relative shoestring, has taught English to 3,900 North Koreans over the past 13 years, is to be commended and would merit greater support, as would academic and cultural exchanges. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology welcomes UK academics to teach there, and we can all join the all-party group on North Korea in calling on the BBC to start broadcasting into North Korea as soon as possible.

As individuals, we can support effective advocacy organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide; I invite hon. Members to read Ben Rogers’s excellent article, which is on the Conservative Home website today. We can highlight the plight of foreign nationals such as Kenneth Bae, who is in jail in North Korea, and support the planned new grass-roots group, North Korea Campaign UK, which is to be modelled on the successful Burma Campaign UK, a country from whose recent experiences we should draw cautious optimism. Hon. Members should look out for this campaign’s launch in the media, which will take place on 27 July to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice. It is often called the forgotten war, and I pay tribute to the 1,000 men who lost their lives in it; that is more British forces than died in the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

All this—opening doors, building relationships, strengthening contacts, and opening as many channels of communication as possible through constructive and critical engagement—is the approach promoted in Lord Alton’s substantial new book, which he wrote with Rob Chidley. It is calledBuilding Bridges: is there Hope for North Korea?” At the risk of recommending yet more fairly heavy reading for MPs over the summer, I recommend the book; it really will impress. It suggests ways forward on the humanitarian and security challenges facing North Korea today—what Lord Alton calls

“Helsinki, with a Korean face”.

That means adopting the approach that Britain and the US took in the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, and building bridges, not walls, between people.

Sir John StanleySir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I applaud my hon. Friend’s choice of subject. Is she aware of the annual international meeting of parliamentarians that focuses exclusively on gross human rights violations in North Korea? I have the privilege of representing the House at the next meeting in Warsaw in a fortnight’s time.

Fiona BruceFiona Bruce: I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is attending that convention; I received an invitation, but was unable to attend.

I commend, too, the work of British officials who, behind the scenes at UN and EU level, in partnership with others, have helped to secure the recently established UN commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea—a real step forward. May I urge them, in addition, to press for the stopping of forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees from China, knowing as we do that they face the kind of experiences that I have described today?

May I encourage colleagues in the House to join the increasingly active all-party group on North Korea to help make the suffering of the people of North Korea, in the most persecuted country on earth, a thing of the past, and in the words of the young music group Ooberfuse to “vanish the night”? That is a song that the group wrote as a result of coming to one of the all-party group meetings. The phrase “Vanish the Night” refers to the fact that if one looks down on satellite pictures of North Korea compared with South Korea, one will see that North Korea is almost totally black. There is no light shining out from the streets in North Korea.

I finish with some words from Lord Alton’s wonderful book. Referring to the example of Burma, he says:

“What seems a faraway dream can happen more quickly than one might imagine.”

Events, he comments, “can move much more quickly than we might sometimes anticipate.”

Speaking of young students such as the North Korean work experience student whom I mentioned at the start of my speech, Lord Alton says:

“We owe it to their generation—to the North Koreans who die trying to escape across the Tumen and Yalu rivers and those who still languish in prison camps—to take every opportunity to bring Korea closer to the dream of reunification. This requires opening up as many channels of communication as possible. We must do everything we can to saturate North Korea with goodwill.”

He goes on:

“The Korean proverb tells us that ‘to begin is half the task’ . . . We must build bridges, not walls.”

Lord Alton and Lady Cox have both spoken widely and frequently on the subject of North Korea, and they have consistently urged action from the British government in reports, papers and speeches. Others have since taken up the cry and, thanks to Fiona Bruce MP’s quotations, I feel like I have contributed to the North Korean debate at the highest level, albeit in a small way.

It is both humbling and exciting at once.

Book CoverThe book is Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea by David Alton and Rob Chidley, and is published by Lion.

Buy it here:

Amazon          Waterstones         The Independent         Foyles

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Competition win

For as long as I’ve been interested in writing, I’ve had the sense that I should be entering writing competitions. It would be good exercise for my literary muscles. When I meet other writers who have won competitions, I feel rather envious of their success, but this feeling transforms quickly into guilt because I’d never taken the time to enter any.
Earlier this year, Christianity magazine launched a flash-fiction competition called ‘Am I Missing Something?’ and I thought I’d have a go. This particular competition limited entrants to 100 words for an entire piece of fiction on the subject of ‘New to Church’. My entry was a little cynical, perhaps, and relied the humour derived from that point of view. I also gave a rather obvious nod to John le Carré‘s famous statement, “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story; ‘the cat sat on the other cat’s mat’ is a story.”

I’m pleased to say that I was one of three winners. Perhaps it was beginners luck. I suppose if I get into the habit of entering competitions I’ll know, based on how well I do. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy the feeling.

Read the three winning entries on the Christianity website here.

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Book launch at the House of Lords, 21 May 2013

Rob & David Yesterday Building Bridges was launched from the House of Lords in Westminster. Approximately 60 guests came to the House to hear about the book and to meet its authors.

My co-author, Lord David Alton of Liverpool, opened the event with a warm welcome after which he gave an short talk described by some of the guests as “eye-opening” and “a revelation”. David described his life history relating to human rights advocacy, revealing the heroes and colleagues who motivated him to join in the Good Fight, before moving on to his recent engagement with North Korea.

He is a very engaging and Signing well-informed speaker, as one would expect from the peer of the realm. As he spoke, he acknowledged individuals in the audience, including Danny Smith of the Jubilee Campaign, Baroness Cox (of course), the heroic blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng to name but few. I knew there were some iconic, courageous and selfless people in the room but, as David spoke, I realised I was utterly surrounded by them. It was humbling.

Then it was my turn to speak.

I did not want to go on too long, so I stuck to describing not the book itself but the effect writing it has had on my life. I told the assembly that:

  1. The book helped me reconnect human faces to statistics. For instance, I am keenly, painfully, aware that every one of the 2.5 million North Koreans who died in the famine of the 1990’s had a face and a name and a family. They were all somebody’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister or spouse. And because we share a common and precious humanity, they are my brothers, sisters, parents and children.
  2. The book makes the case that we all must intervene. There is something that all of us can do to rehumanise the dialogue between North Korea and the World. And, because of point 1, we must do it.

MinglingI admit my emotions ran deep as I spoke and the audience could see that. They were kind with their applause and, wonderfully, Baroness Cox (who wrote the book’s foreword) stood as I sat down and added some warm and encouraging words of her own.

The speaking session was followed by a time of questions-and-answers, after which we mingled and chatted. I enjoyed meeting everyone, and I was especially thrilled Rob & Amyto meet the new British Ambassador to North Korea, Mr Michael Gifford. I was also very proud to have my wife Amy, my parents and my sisters-in-law there. I would also like to thank Ali Hull, both as a representative of the publisher Lion and also as the person who put me onto the book in the first place.

It was a wonderful evening, which finished with a drink or two at the Westminster Tavern — a marvellous way to finish.


Scroll down to the bottom of this previous post for links to online shops.

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The week it all happens

Four days from now, on Thursday of this week, the book will be officially published. This morning I feel like I have rounded the last bend on a long journey and can see the twinkling lights of home. There are still a few milestones to pass, but the great effort of producing a book is behind me.

I will pass the next (and most significant) milestone tomorrow when the great, the good and the powerful will gather when Lord Alton and I host a book launch at the House of Lords in one of the function rooms.

Lord Alton will give a short talk on his Lord Alton in actionengagement with North Korea and I will speak about the experience of going from a relative know-nothing to a concerned observer. My association with Lord Alton through writing this book has also profoundly affected my faith and ignited a serious desire to contribute something, anything, to theHouses of Parliament effort to bring about positive change for North Korea and its suffering people.

To speak about this in front of Peers of the Realm, Members of Parliament, journalists, reviewers, networkers and loved-ones scares me. But if I am going to find some way of being part of the solution for ordinary North Koreans, I’d better get used to being scared.

This will be a milestone to remember.

Very soon the marketing marathon will begin, but perhaps my publisher, Lion, will allow me to rest my feet for the bank holiday weekend.

Book CoverThe book is Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea by David Alton and Rob Chidley, and is published by Lion.

Buy it here:



The Independent


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Press coverage

Ahead of the book launch for Building Bridges this week, my local paper gave me a lovely write-up. Click on the image to download the high-res (readable) version:

Leamington Spa Courier

Leamington Spa Courier


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Iraq and Easter

Today is Easter Sunday, the culmination of a week of intense reflection and emotional turmoil for Christians across the world. Easter is a narrative roller-coaster, laced with bitter and subversive irony: the ‘green mile’ of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in which the people unwittingly cheered each step that took him closer to his own murder; and the shameful arrest, trial, torture and execution which turned the universe on its head and brought life out of a spiral of death. The good became bad and the bad became good.

Easter 2013 came comparatively early, bringing it closer to the anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now ten years on, the bitter and subversive irony is all-too-apparent.

The unambiguously-named iraqbodycount.org estimates the post-invasion Iraqi civilian death toll to be between 111,840 and 122,320, with an added margin of error of a further 12,000 from unverified Wikileaks documents. Iraq may be out of the news but it isn’t out of the woods.

The court-martial and trial of US Army Private Bradley Manning is still under way. Manning, who endured extended solitary confinement and torture at the hands of the US Army, admitted that he did in fact send the ‘Collateral Murder’ tape to Wikileaks. This infamous footage from 2007 shows a US helicopter gunship crew murdering a group of journalists before swooping back around to fire on Iraqi first-aiders going to help the injured and dying.

In this context, just a couple of weeks before Easter in which Christ himself demonstrates the full cost of non-violent opposition to the Empire, former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld tweeted:

What he meant to say was “We who played a role in history deserve your respect and appreciation.” He didn’t get it; instead he received a storm of hate. The Los Angeles-based comedian and writer Rob Delaney said it best:

I am sure “blood-gargling psychopath” is a phrase that will stay with me for a long time.

Where is the irony? As Rumsfeld begged for respect, adulation and honours for a job well done, the country of Iraq is still stained with the blood of its civilians. One of the men who should be begging for the forgiveness of the Iraqi people is asking for their thanks. This is irony of the darkest kind.

CanonAs I left church this morning, I noticed a poster for a new book by Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad. With such an Easter-themed title as ‘Father, Forgive: reflections on peacemaking’, perhaps the good Reverend Canon will be able to show a hopeful way forward for Iraq – one that does not rely on ranks, honours and ‘victory’ parades but on self-sacrifice, brokenness and an unimaginable but potent resurrection.

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