I was sad this week to hear of the passing of Roger Bannister, the English athlete who famously broke the four minute mile in 1954. I grew up a little after that, in the shadow of World War II, the British Empire’s last gasps, the ascent of Everest and the four minute mile.
Bannister, boyish looking, amateur athlete, running around the track at Oxford, represented a particular Englishness for me, partly because my father was a runner and told me these stories too. I remembered this week that I’d written a poem that included Bannister a few years ago, so I thought I’d include it here, now.
Child of the Empire
I was born under
The Illusion of Progress,
raised on the outskirts
of a great empire, believing
built things endure.
I was schooled in
The Great Tradition
near an airport
where the bright silver vehicles
of the future
descended from the blue.
I was coached in the exploits
of Roger Bannister and Baden Powell
and the self-determination of
Look and Learn
or the steady resolve of Churchill
in the Blitz.
All that certainty unravels slowly
and tangles as it does,
things change before you know them,
a stone, nestled beneath the tongue,
wont get you through all this.
One of the constant preoccupations of the procrastinating writer using technology, is finding he perfect writing program.
It’s been a long time since I gave up on the souped-up MS Word to be that tool, and moved to applications that focused on distraction-free, minimalist approaches.
I also didn’t want to end up with all my writing in a proprietary format, even one so seemingly ubiquitous as .docx. For example, I’ve had my poems all archived in a FileMaker Pro database for a long time, but it’s been crashing a bit lately and I began to worry again about having all that writing in a format I couldn’t access easily, and through a variety of software. Hence, the argument for plain .txt files for poems that can be opened by a wide variety of programs. Text is unlikely to go away.
For a while I was recommending the text editor Ulysses, but then it jumped the shark and wanted to start charging on a subscription basis (I’m even reluctant to use that model for huge,complex software bundles like Adobe Creative Cloud and Microsoft Office let alone a text editor), so I started looking around again for a writing tool that had to have the following essential qualities:
Writes and saves in plain text (.txt) format
Can use simple markdown text commands (I know it’s a bit esoteric, but great if you prefer keyboard command typing and hands off the mouse)
Can output to standard file types: PDF, Word, etc.
Can output to my standard blog system (WordPress.com)
Can be used on iPad, Mac and iPhone using some sort of cloud-based architecture (iCloud, Dropbox) with the main aim being I want to be able to pick up my writing on any device and just take up where I left off.
Has a kind of distraction-free mode so that I can focus on just the text on the page and not tons of tool-bars, windows, pop-ups and buttons.
There’s a few that do most of these things, including Byword, but in the end I opted to go back to iA Writer, an app I’d enjoyed a while ago, and has come a long way since I last looked at it closely.
iA Writer is simple to use and good to look at. It doesn’t paralyse you with a thousand typographical choices and can be driven with some simple keyboard commands giving you access to other files and folders (Ctl-E) and a preview of the markdown (Ctl-R) It saves in plain text and you can use markdown commands. All your files are synced in the background and accessible via iCloud syncing that seems to just work. There is some syntax highlighting which I only find vaguely useful (highlight adverbs in the current document and delete them all!) and quickly outputs to Word, PDF, and WordPress.
For longer pieces, iA Writer isn’t perfect, and for those things, and particularly for the creation of Epub files, I’ve recommended Scrivener for a while now. Scrivener seems to be designed primarily for novelists and playwrights, and is a bit over-powered for writing individual poems, but ideal for putting together collections. I’ve used it to create ebook anthologies really successfully.
But for most of my daily writing: poetry especially, but articles and reviews and long prose as well, I’ve settled on iA Writer as that well designed application that does what you want it to do, then stays the background and doesn’t demand your attention.
Writing is always challenging, so anything that can help make the process more natural feeling, and more fluent, is welcome.
When some favourite turns on you it always seems worse somehow. So, very annoyed to learn that my favourite text editor, and go-to writing tool, Ulysses, has moved to a subscription model.
So, a product I’ve paid for on the iPad, iPhone and Mac, and tweeted about positively for ages, now wants to charge me monthly to keep using it. I pay subscriptions now for Apple Music and even software like Adobe’s Creative Cloud and Office 365, and they’re decisions I didn’t make lightly, but a monthly fee for a text editor, even if it’s probably the best text editor I’ve seen? No. When my favourite text shortcut utility Text Expander did the same thing a while ago, I gave up on it, and went to Type it for Me and haven’t looked back.
So, dont’ spurn me! Last night I dug back into some old favourites like Ia Writer and Byword looking for something that will allow me to write quickly, distraction-free on any device I have with me, and sync across the platforms in the background.
It took me about an hour but I’ve moved my writing out of Ulysses into iAWriter and I’ll keep that for poetry and creative stuff and use Byword for my blogging and work-related stuff. I’m hurt, but I’m bouncing back.
My great friend Liam Davison (right) would have been 60 today. That’s us, in Vietnam I think.
I don’t want to talk about the senseless loss of life, that took him and his wife Francesca that was MH17, and one day I’ll be ready to write in a lot more detail about Liam and his writing, and what they both meant to me. Liam was an extraordinary person and writer.
Today, I’m just remembering the friend I met at teacher’s college in 1975, who I taught with, wrote with, travelled, socialised, rode and and talked with for nearly forty years.
Recently, Gavin Duffy, the graphics editor of Peninsula Writing, shared some photos he’d re-discovered of Gavin, Liam and myself on the radio set of Radio Port Phillip where we did a weekly radio show on local writing for a while, and also trying to sell our little magazine at a publisher’s event in the mid 1980s. They were fun times, excited about writing and where it all might lead. I love our Peninsula Writing wind-cheaters and that sense that we were doing something fun and important.
I miss him pretty much every day.
Today, I’ll be celebrating his 60th with family and friends
Below: Promoting local writing on Radio Port Phillip. From left: Liam, Debbie Batt, me.
Below: On the Small Publishers stand at a book fair. From left: Liam, unknown, me.