Can you name the 27th letter of the alphabet?

Well, of course not, there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.

But not always; once there were 27. (Well, 29, but we’ll get to that later.)

The letter we’re talking about here is the ampersand: today it’s mainly used in company names, like Barnes & Noble, or in abbreviations like R&R.

It’s an unusual little critter. Where did it come from?

In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive text, so when they wrote ‘et’ – the Latin word for ‘and’ – they linked the two letters. Over time, this was adopted in the English language as well. ‘And’ became both a word and a letter.

The name for this symbol – “ampersand” – came centuries later. In the early nineteenth century, school children reciting the alphabet still finished with ‘&’.

But you can’t finish ‘X,Y, Z, and.’ How could they sing that on Sesame Street? It doesn’t rhyme.

So instead, they said – because this is oh so much easier – ‘X, Y, Z and, per se, and.’

Per se, in Latin, means ‘by itself.’ So the students, or the Muppets, or whoever, were actually singing: ‘X, Y, Z and, by itself, “and.” ’ (Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in kindy back then?)

Over the course of a few decades, ‘and per se and’ became – “ampersand.”

Okay, so that’s sorted. But what about letters 28 and 29?

Well old English was first written in the futhorc runic alphabet of the Anglo-Saxons.

Christian missionaries later introduced the Latin alphabet which replaced it, and, for a time, the alphabet included letters of both languages.

But two of them fell into disuse.

One was a letter called ‘thorn’ which represented the ‘the’ sound.

Because the symbol for ‘thorn’ and the symbol for ‘y’ look nearly identical in medieval English blackletter, the two were mistakenly substituted for each other.

This is why you see signs pointing the way to “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in mock Tudor villages in England; we didn’t change the actual sound for ‘the’ over the years, just the symbol we used to spell it.

The other letter that was dropped was “wynn,” which represented the “uu” sound which became, as you probably guessed, a “w”. Yes, a double U.

So there you have it. Now you know your ampersand, thorn, wynn – won’t you sing along with me?

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Why do writers use pseudonyms – are they using a pen name to hide something?

There are many writers – myself included – who don’t write under their own names. I had more aliases than a Mafia hitman when I was freelancing as a journalist, and as an author I’ve had four.

Why do writers use another name?

Here’s five good reasons – and two that are maybe not quite as cool.

  1. Because you’re banged up in prison

When William Sydney Porter was released from prison in 1901, his criminal past – he had been jailed for bank fraud – was an impediment to a career in literature (unlike today when it’s a fantastic advantage.) So, he became O. Henry, a name taken, ironically, from one of his prison guards in Ohio Pen – Orrin Henry. Porter became one of the most popular short-story writers in America in the early part of the last century and sold millions. He carried the secret of his imprisonment to his grave.

  1. Because you want to keep your job

When Newsweek columnist Joe Klein wrote ‘Primary Colours’, a no holds barred portrayal of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, he wrote it as “Anonymous”, aware he was breaching a journalistic code of ethics.

When he was outed – and if you write anything as Anonymous, you will be, guaranteed – he made things worse by initially denying it. When the truth came out, he lost his job at CBS News as well as the respect and trust of many of his colleagues. Newsweek kept him on though, even though he’d shown his true colors.

  1. Because your mum wouldn’t like your book

Sylvia Plath apparently had a close and intimate relationship with her mother but that didn’t stop her having homicidal thoughts about her.

“The Bell Jar”, published by ‘Victoria Lucas’, was the story of a brilliant but troubled woman called Esther Greenwood, a failed suicide whose needy and controlling mother was the cause of many of her problems.

Then there’s Patricia Highsmith, best known for “The Talented Mister Ripley” but less well known for “The Price of Salt”, which she wrote as ‘Carol Morgan’. She used a pen name because she was worried what her grandmother might think about a book that so graphically described a lesbian love affair. It was forty years before she finally admitted authorship.

  1. Because a weird voice in your head tells you to

Fernando Pessoa is considered one of Portugal’s towering literary figures; or at least one of the top 80, because that’s how many different writing ‘identities’ he had. These spirits, who wrote ‘through him’, as he said, contributed poems, plays, essays and novels to his earthly canon.

Among the authors he channelled was a bisexual opium-smoking naval engineer, a hunchback dying of tuberculosis, and a suicidal baron. If he was alive today Amazon would have run out of sub categories just for him alone.

  1. Because it would ruin your credibility

Eric Blair described himself as “lower upper-middle-class” – which is like a Kennedy describing themselves as blue collar Cape Cod.

He attended Eton, England’s most prestigious private school, and as a child was forbidden to play with the plumber’s children because they were ‘common’.

When he wrote “Down and Out in Paris and London,” he didn’t want to embarrass his lower upper-middle class family – or betray his privileged roots while railing against the injustices of poverty. He told his publisher that “if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.”

The pseudonym? George Orwell.

Charlie’s alter ego – ‘Carlos le Spaniel’

 And two really bad reasons

  1. Because you’re a woman:

Well today it’s a bad idea. Unfortunately, there was a time when women felt they had to adopt a man’s name if they wanted to succeed. For example, when Mary Ann Evans wrote a book called “Adam Bede” she didn’t want her work to be perceived as the work of a romantic female novelist. In fact, just before her book was published, she wrote an essay called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ that pilloried contemporary female writing.

She wrote ‘Adam Bede’ under a pseudonym, which you may have heard of before – George Eliot.

The Bronte sisters first published as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because as Charlotte said: “… I had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice,”

But gender bias in publishing is not totally consigned to the past. Joanna Rowling’s publisher thought her Harry Potter series wouldn’t be as popular among boys if it was known to be penned by a woman.

So JK used initials instead of her christian name. The “K” doesn’t stand for anything because she has no middle name.

Actually, her Harry Potter books catapulted in popularity after her gender was revealed.

  1. To make another writer’s life a misery

In 1708 an “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” published his “Predictions for the Year 1708,” prophesying the death of a famous astrologist and fortune teller called Samuel Partridge.

He followed this up with another article two months later – under a different pen name – claiming the prophesy had come true.

Partridge woke one night to find his fans crying outside his bedroom window. He was forced to make a public statement insisting he was alive after an undertaker arrived, an elegy was published, and a gravestone was prepared.

In fact, no one believed he wasn’t dead until six years later when he was dead and then they didn’t believe that either.

The culprit? Jonathan Swift, later famous for ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. It was all part of an elaborate April’s Fool hoax that tormented Partridge for the rest of his natural life.

And no, Colin Falconer is not my real name either. It was the name of the prison guard at the mental facility where one of the poets I channel was incarcerated for impersonating a woman on Bill Clinton’s campaign staff.

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We are all living through a disaster story right now.

We don’t want to. We don’t like it. But we don’t have any choice.

Like me, you’re probably very worried. We all have people we love, and some of them may be vulnerable right now. We’re all facing an uncertain present and an even more uncertain future.

But if it’s any comfort, this is a well-trodden path we’re all on. 

Human beings have been surviving all manner of disasters, great and small, since we started walking upright – and then we made up stories about what happened, to use as road maps in the future.

So what can fiction teach us about fear – in fact, how is fiction going to help us in any way?

Because it is what fiction is for.

Times like these – it’s the very reason stories exist.

Stories, from Superman to Cinderella, Hunger Games to Hannibal Lecter, are our collective wisdom. It’s why we read them and watch them and listen to them. 

You see, fiction isn’t about things that never happened. Plot is just a device. The real story is about you and me, and discovering together what we are really like inside.

And we only ever learn anything about ourselves in a crisis.

Every day, somewhere in the world, there are people fighting to survive some sort of personal threat; it could be a war, a divorce or – as is happening right now – a virus.

You and I have been thrust into the middle of this. There is no way to refuse the call. Our particular story will be what we do between now, this unexpected beginning, and The End.

And that story will count for something.

We all have had parents or grandparents who lived through even darker days than these. When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me how she and her neighbours sat in an underground station in London during the Blitz, singing songs to keep up each other’s spirits while the bombs fell and the ground shook. (Much the same way Italians serenaded each other from their balconies above the deserted piazzas during their lockdowns.) Every morning she woke up wondering if this was the day she would be a widow at eighteen, or be homeless – or both.

My old man remembered sitting shivering on Juno Beach on D-Day+1, with a cold can of baked beans, thinking: this is the last time I’ll ever see the sun come up.

My grandmother would sometimes mutter under her breath about her brother-in-law, who got himself listed ‘unfit for duty’ and instead stayed home and made a handsome profit on the black market.  

Theirs were stories about heroism and fear and survival and now such reminiscences form the backdrop to countless novels and movies about those same terrible times.

Very soon, we may all have stories a little like theirs.

There will be hoarders and profiteers; there will be those who say it’s everyone for themselves and others helping communities pull together; there will be doctors and nurses fighting on the front line and people going out of their way to help others who can’t help themselves.

And when the story finally ends – and hopefully our time of danger will not last anywhere near as long as that terrible war – we will all have learned something about ourselves.

Did we secure seven thousand bottles of hand sanitizer so we could sell them on eBay at a ridiculous profit – or did we give the food we just bought from the supermarket to the old lady who got knocked over in the stampede in the aisles?

What about you? When people write novels about the Coronavirus Epidemic of 2020 – and they will – will you be the inspiration for one of the villains or one of the heroes? 

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At quarter to ten on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, an up and coming crime writer left her home in Berkshire, England, saying she was going out for a drive.

She first went upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter, Rosalind, then got into her Morris Cowley and left.

The next morning the car was found several miles away – abandoned.

Where was she?

She left behind a letter, addressed to the local constable, saying she feared for her life.

So – had she been murdered?

To add to the intrigue, the writer’s mother had died just a few months earlier and she was said to be severely depressed. There was a lake called Silent Pool just a quarter of a mile from where her car was found. A character in one of her books had drowned there.

So – must be suicide then.

The police started dredging the lake. Fifteen thousand volunteers joined the search of the surrounding countryside. 

The writer’s name? You might have heard of her. It was Agatha Christie.

And now the plot thickens…

photo: violetriga

The police discovered that Agatha’s husband, Archie, a handsome fighter pilot and war hero, had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele. He had told Agatha he was going to spend the weekend with Nancy at their love nest in Surrey.

He had asked for a divorce, but she had refused to give him one.

Was this the reason she feared for her life?

Had he murdered his wife so he could marry his mistress?

The police started following him, even tapped his phone.

Or perhaps, you know, the butler did it?

The police investigated further. The family didn’t have a butler. Damn.

For eleven days in 1926, all England was abuzz with the mystery of what had happened to the woman who was to become the greatest mystery writer in literary history.

What had happened to Agatha Christie?

The story made the front page of the New York Times. The British Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, demanded answers. Even celebrated crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers got involved; Doyle took one of Agatha’s discarded gloves to a medium; Sayers spent days inspecting the scene of the crime and then announced that she had now enough material to write another book.

A typical writer.

If Agatha was dead – where was her body?

Her body was still breathing and sitting in a cane chair reading magazines in Yorkshire.

In fact Agatha’s brother-in-law, Campbell, had already told the police that Agatha had written to him the week before she disappeared, saying she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. But the police didn’t believe him – they thought it was a red herring.

In the denouement, it was revealed that he was right after all. She had checked in – disappointingly not under the name Miss Marple – but the name Theresa Neele – the same surname as her husband’s paramour.

Like any good crime writer, she had even left clues; she had placed an advertisement in the London Times saying Mrs. Theresa Neele’s relatives could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate.

But the Poirots at Scotland Yard missed that.

Finally, some of the spa’s other guests compared the photographs in the newspaper with their own Mrs Neele, gathered everyone in the dining room, and solved the case.

It seemed that after she had dumped her car, she had simply walked into town and caught a train to London. Once there, she did a little retail therapy, posted the letter to Archie and took the train to Yorkshire.

Elementary my dear Watson.

When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been relaxing for eleven days at a spa, they were outraged. They demanded answers; why had she done it?

She refused to say.

In fact, she kept silent about the whole episode her entire life. Her most enduring mystery died with her, unsolved.

The official line was that she had amnesia brought on by grief over her mother’s death, or that she was in a fugue state, a rare psychogenic condition brought on by trauma and depression.

Another theory was that her devious writer’s mind contrived the whole affair to ruin her husband’s dirty weekend.

No! I believe the real culprit is right here in this room, I say, pointing my finger accusingly at Agatha herself, and that she did it to boost sales of her new book, ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’!

* The rest of the cast gasp, in horror at the deviousness of the plot and in admiration of my brilliant detective work. *

If I’m right, and it was all an elaborate publicity stunt, then it was a stroke of genius, because Ms Christie went on to sell around a billion copies of her eighty novels in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. (I didn’t know there were that many languages.)

She and Archie were divorced in 1928 and Agatha later married archaeologist Max Mallowan, 15 years her junior. (She reportedly said that the great thing about marrying an archaeologist was that the older she got, the more interested he was in her.)

She finally died in 1975, aged 86, from natural causes.

At least that’s what she wants us all to think.

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They say you can’t judge a book by its cover.

A good cover may make us pick the book up and think about buying it.

But it’s the first lines are crucial in helping us decide whether we are going to keep reading or not.

For my own part, I’ve read plenty of good books whose first lines I don’t remember.

I even tore out the first three pages of one of my favorite novels – The Poisonwood Bible – when I came to re-read it. That prologue was so dreary I almost gave up on the book that first time. Thankfully, I persisted.

Now, with every one of my own books, I spend a lot of time on the first line, the first paragraph, the first page.

“I was twenty-nine years old when I died.” – A Vain and Indecent Woman, Colin Falconer

“The head had been impaled on a railing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in the early hours of a cold November morning. There was a fine dusting of frost on the corpse’s hair and eyelids which gave it a festive touch.” – Cry Justice, Colin Falconer

You can never underestimate the power of a good opening line.

Here are 43 of the best in Literature: Read More …