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Monkey Business

Picture this. You’ve bought a lovely new washing machine. You call your local plumber to plumb it in. You think he’s charging too much, but you manage to get his price down. Result! He does the job quickly; you pay him and he’s gone. Time to do some washing. The machine fills; the drum starts to rotate. Lovely suds are soon working their way through your grubby smalls. The rinse cycle will start once all that soapy water has been pumped out. Then horror! Mucky water is flooding your kitchen! You’re furious. You call the plumber. “Yeah, I plumbed it in, but you didn’t pay me enough to connect the pipes to the drain!” he says sarcastically.

You wouldn’t have done that, though, would you? You’d have paid him a professional rate for a professional job. Yet authors often expect copy-editors and proofreaders to work for way below the going rate. Yes, they need to keep their unit costs down but why expect other professionals to bear that? Do they expect their electricity providers to charge less for the power needed to run the computers they use to write their masterpieces? I think not. If I flick through a novel and spot errors, I won’t buy it. A book that’s as error free as possible and reads well is likely to be far more successful. This is why good editorial support is invaluable, but many authors are unwilling to make this investment and try to find ways to avoid it. “I got my mate to read it!” “I proofread it myself!” Your mate’s not a professional proofreader, and it’s nigh impossible to proofread your own work. Yes, even proofreaders find that difficult!

Unfortunately, there are those who are willing to “do it for a fiver” but they devalue our profession and make it difficult for others to command the proper rate for the job. So, dear authors, value your copy-editor and proofreader and offer more than peanuts.

The European Parliamentary election is due to be held on 4 June 2009. So far, we’ve had two leaflets in our letterbox. One was from the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It tells us that Deva Kumarasiri (one of the candidates) was “[s]ensationally sacked from his Post Office job for refusing to serve customers who spoke no English”. I wonder if Mr Kumarasiri is aware that fellow party member and candidate Derek Clark MEP is unable to write a grammatically correct English sentence. Mr Clark claims he was “instrumental in getting the Working Time Directive postponed so that it’s implementation is now unlikely in near future”. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pointing out the two errors therein.

Only joking!

Yesterday, I took the train from Nottingham to King’s Cross St Pancras. While waiting for the train to pull out, I noticed several British Transport Police on the platform. Something up? Nah. Turned out they were just travelling on the train. Walking down the platform at St Pancras, one officer said to a guy pushing a rubbish cart: “You got a body in there?!” I wondered what the outcome would have been if the cart-pusher had jokingly said: “I got a body in here!”

We’d done some long drives in the United States – down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back via Sequoia and Yosemite, and from Nashville to Chicago via the Mississippi – but I’d always fancied travelling on Amtrak. The opportunity came when we’d invites to visit cousins in Chicago and Toronto.

Our train from Chicago to Toronto was due to leave at 09:50 and arrive at 23:05. We left pretty much on time but it was downhill from there. The train was generally dirty; the windows were filthy. Some of the toilets stank, and others were blocked and unusable. We stopped just outside Lansing (only about 25 miles from Chicago), as there was a problem with the engine. We heard much hammering by an engineer, but to no avail. After an hour, another engine arrived to tow us further. But this one wasn’t powerful enough to pull the train and provide lights and air-con! Some windows were opened for air but many passengers suffered from the engine fumes that were blown in. We were offered fizzy drinks and crisps/popcorn as compensation but the barman refused to open the beer or wine.

At the next station we were transferred to two coaches (warm and comfortable with functioning toilets). We reached Port Huron (the border town) after the train. The real fun started at Customs! Some passengers were refused entry, and we were told that whoever had brought them across the border had to take them back (this was subsequently refuted by a Greyhound bus driver, who told us they use taxis for that). So people from coach 1 got on coach 2, resulting in several people standing. This wasn’t acceptable, of course, so we stopped at Sarnia VIA rail station to await the return of coach 1. We waited for more than two hours. It was cold. We’d no access to food or drink. The driver was aggressive and rude to passengers who were making helpful suggestions to improve our situation. HHHe even raised his fist. One guy had some videos (suitable for everyone) and asked to play them to pass the time. The driver refused, saying that we hadn’t hired him (although surely Amtrak had on our behalf). When coach 1 returned we were told there’d be just two further stops – at London and Toronto. Those with tickets for intermediate stations would have to make their own way from those stops. Some passengers suggested that one coach go direct to Toronto and the other to the intermediate stops, but the drivers didn’t want to listen. However, a few miles down the road, we stopped so one of the drivers could phone his dispatch centre from a payphone (having refused the offer of a mobile phone from one of the passengers). We waited for dispatch to phone back. It was then agreed that they could do what had been suggested! We arrived in Toronto at around 4am.

You may be wondering why it took coach 1 two hours to get back. The driver had been stopped and questioned at the border. Officials suspected he’d stolen the coach, as it was brand new and empty!

We’d a lovely week in Toronto, exploring the city, seeing cousins I hadn’t seen for over 30 years, and visiting Niagara Falls. And we were looking forward to our long train trip back – not imagining that something could go wrong twice!

The train to Chicago was due to leave at 06:35. Just a few minutes before, Amtrak informed us that because of a derailment earlier that week, they could take us only as far as Port Huron. We’d be on our own from there! They then told us that a Greyhound bus was leaving in two hours – we could take that but we’d have to pay. We chose that option, dreading the prospect of being stranded at the border. The journey was long and tiring, but uneventful, and the driver (Jeff) was chatty and rather gorgeous! We were so relieved to see the Chicago skyline. I’d often wondered what a long journey on a Greyhound bus would be like but never really had any desire to find out. Be careful what you wonder about!

Amtrak eventually refunded the cost of the unused return tickets but refused to entertain any claim for compensation.

Gee thanks, Guys!

In November 2007, I spent a night in the A&E ward of St Thomas’ hospital in London. The women’s ward was full, so I was given a bed in the corner of the men’s ward. That in itself wasn’t a problem. I didn’t get much rest, though, because the lights were on all night, and it was noisy – to be expected in such a ward, I guess. I was to be transferred to Guy’s the next morning. They were just starting to serve lunch by the time transport arrived, and I was very hungry. But then they told me I was to go for an x-ray (the first I’d heard of it). The transport guy didn’t want to wait, but was swiftly told that wasn’t an option! I was wheeled down corridors, out into the open air (it was freezing), and down some more corridors. “What’s this x-ray for?” I asked when we finally arrived. “Because you’ve had a mechanical fall, a cough, and a low blood count.” “No to all three!” I replied. I was shocked. After several minutes, they discovered that my name had put been on someone else’s record. I didn’t have a wristband, but that would have made no difference…the names would have matched. Had I not enquired, I would have had a fairly harmless x-ray. But what if this error resulted in a more invasive procedure, or the administration of drugs? I was able to speak up for myself, but what of those who can’t? I shudder to think of what could happen.

So…back to A&E, into an ambulance, and across London to Guy’s. By the time we got there, they’d finished serving lunch, but I was given a rather tasteless chicken sandwich (made with cotton-wool white bread), sugar-laden yoghurt, and tea. So much for healthy options.

My couple of days in Guy’s were fairly uneventful. Various tests and visits by young house doctors who spoke far too loud to respect anyone’s privacy. I was given a copy of the report to my GP, and was alarmed to find errors therein. I wondered about such errors appearing on the records of elderly patients, who’d then be labelled as forgetful (or worse) if they disagreed with something in their notes.

More tests were ordered for the New Year. I won’t bore you with the details. When the tests were finished, I sat next to the nurse as she put labels on the printouts. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m putting your name label on these results!” she replied. “But my name isn’t Alison!” I said. She’d been taking labels from the wrong file on her desk! Another potentially very serious error. Had I not spotted this, my results would effectively have gone missing and “Alison” would have been misdiagnosed. The nurse didn’t seem too bothered.

A week or so later, I had an appointment with the consultant, who discovered that the most crucial test result was missing from the file! I had to tell him what had been done. He spent some time phoning around to find someone who could track down the result, and read it over the phone! He decided to refer me to one of his colleagues. Although the letter was marked as urgent, it took a month to reach him…in the same building.

Whilst I have a lot of praise for the NHS, and have been well treated in the past, this series of mistakes is very worrying.

Leaving the roost

I registered here over a year ago – 13 months ago, in fact – but kept shying away from starting. I’ve written a million words in my head, but none has reached the screen. Today, I started tidying up my bookmarks. In the folder named Blogs, I found a link to Penelope Trunk’s blog (blog.penelopetrunk.com). I don’t recall how I found her, or if someone told me about her, but I’m glad I discovered her again. Penelope’s Guide to Blogging might just have kick-started me. I’ve been tweeting a bit and putting photos on Flickr (my username on both is Enigmatist). I guess that’s a kind of blogging, but there isn’t much depth there. There are stories I want to share – about experiences with Amtrak a few years ago, and with Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital more recently. I’ll start with the hospital story, as it’s freshest in my mind…and I think it might help to get that stuff out of my head.