A Soft Day by Anne O’Brien

“THE RAIN RUNS in muddy rivulets off the pile of earth beside his grave. No softening of the edges of this funeral. No fake grass discretely covers the mound, just a heap of mud, a pair of dirty spades, and two reluctant gravediggers in fluorescent jackets leaning against the neighbouring gravestone, silently willing us to move on so they can get the job done and head to the pub. Of course nothing will do the Ma but she has to wait until the last shovelful is put on. They pat down the soil with the backs of their spades as though they’re on a building site.
‘Don’t worry that it’s a bit high Missus. It’ll settle down grand in the next few weeks…’
Settle down on top of him and in time, when the wood rots and the earth seeps in, settle down until it kisses his face. I wish I’d kissed him now.
We place the wreaths on the grave as the rain buckets down,
‘Sincere condolences from all at Fahey’s.’ I tear the card off and stuff it my damp pocket before she sees it.”

Read on in ‘Let Me Tell You a Story’ where you can also hear Anne’s own narration by scanning a QR code.

Available from Lulu and Amazon


How one word may have swung the EU vote

A simplification obviously, and compounded by a number of other influencing factors, but here, from a psychological not a political perspective, is my breakdown of what those were and why they were important. Some of the same issues would have applied had the vote gone the other way.


  1. A referendum is an extraordinary thing because many more people than usual tend to vote which means there’s likely to be a significant number of novice voters, people less experienced at the whole rather intimidating process, than usual.

Why is this important?

Because when something is important AND you’re not familiar with the process AND you feel a bit daunted, you’re less likely to be confident about your actions. Suddenly being alone in the booth with just a ballot paper and a pencil can cause people question their judgement or make a mistake in applying it.

  1. The average reading age in the UK is around 10 years[1]. This is well documented and a number of popular news outlets tailor their language and messages to accommodate that. The Electoral Commission[2], in advising on the way the EU Referendum ballot paper was worded, took an element of that into consideration and simplified the wording through tests with focus groups.

Why is this important?

Because despite quite extensive work to maximise accessibility of the ballot paper, a quick check of readability (Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease) places it at 12th grade, or around age 16 years, making it accessible by only around 37.2% of the population. Changing one word – from Remain to Stay – increases that to 42.5% and reduced the grade to 11 (or 14/15 years). The Electoral Commission chose not to do this because of feedback that equated Stay with a command.

  1. Unlike a local or general election, there are no names on the ballot sheet.

 Why is this important?

Because given the situational demands of unfamiliarity and complex wording, there needs to be a recognisable cue to maximise certainty. Names can be learned and then recognised so that reliance on reading is reduced as people just look through a list for the name they know. An absence of such cues increases uncertainty and also therefore dependence on other mechanisms such as something understandable or a visual cue like an icon. The EU referendum campaign employed a range of images and slogans with the same colours appearing on both sides so that none would have made a recognisable logo to assist people in finding their preferred voting box.

  1. The ordering of the questions placed the Leave option second.

Why is this important?

For two reasons, only one of which the Electoral Commission addressed and which may, given the shortness of the list, be less relevant than the other. In any list of items to remember, there is often a Recency[3] effect whereby the last item is more likely to be remembered than earlier ones. However, there is also a Primacy effect such that the earliest items are also more likely to be remembered, creating a dip in the middle where much is forgotten. In a two-question ballot, neither could really be said to come into play. The other effect though, is very likely. When people are unsure, they often choose the second of any two options and in this particular context not only was Remain a more difficult word to process (as shown by the effect on readability of its substitution by the word Stay), but the easier word Leave appeared in the second option. This raises the possibility that a significant number of people, caught in the situational demand of what they were doing but struggling to process the wording, may have placed their cross in the box adjacent to the sentence they most understood.

  1. The media whose output is tailored to the average reading age are the most popular in the country due to the skills of the journalists who maintain that level of maximum readability.

Why is that important?

Because both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are ex and current journalists who have these skills and appeared to apply them expertly to create the kind of concise messages that appeal to the readership of popular media outlets. These tend to be emotionally rather than factually driven and are often aligned with key target concerns. In this case immigration, the NHS, and jobs.

  1. Finally, legislation that requires the advertising of goods and services to be ‘legal and decent, honest and truthful’ does not apply to politics or political campaigning[4]

Why is that important?

Because this is how the issues raised in 5 above were possible, why they can’t be challenged, and why dishonesty and manipulation were able to take the place of clear and accurate information on both sides. Decisional capacity[5] is founded on being given the best possible information towards making a choice. Where that is lacking, any choice is unsafe. It applies to all hospital and similar procedures where the outcome has implications for the patient and there are risks and benefits to weigh up. An election – a contract between the information giver and the recipient –  is no different in reality, except that the outcome affects more than the one individual decision-maker.

The questions on the EU referendum ballot paper required people to condense a multitude of arguments, each in itself of huge complexity and presented, if people were not inclined or able to engage in their own research, as simple matters linked to emotive and high profile domestic issues. Those arguments were not bound by standards requiring them to be ‘legal, decent, honest, and truthful’. They were also less easy to read than they should have been to accommodate the large numbers of the UK populace whose literacy does not reach beyond the 11-12 year level. Further, the positioning of the questions was such that the most readable came second and was therefore potentially subject to second option bias that has been shown to kick in under conditions of uncertainty.

Any further referenda, held for whatever reason, would do well to

  1. Consider readability in greater detail and adjust the wording accordingly
  2. Place questions side by side and/or randomise the order
  3. Encourage the use of consistent logos to be placed adjacent to the questions as identifiers for people with literacy or decisional difficulties
  4. Discourage the use of journalistic techniques that reflect tabloid persuasive influence strategies at the expense of information relevant to the decision
  5. Change the law to ensure the same standards of honesty to which advertising is held,  apply equally to political statements and campaigns upon which the public is required to make important decisions.


[1] See A Voice explains it clearly and significantly, is a marketing company http://www.see-a-voice.org/marketing-ad/effective-communication/readability/

[2] Electoral Commission. The full report can be downloaded as a PDF http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/eu-referendum-question-assessment

[3] Recency Effect https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_position_effect

[4] ASA position https://www.asa.org.uk/News-resources/Media-Centre/2014/Political-advertising.aspx#.V3OmpLgkqHs

[5] See http://good-question.org/

No idea who your MEP is? Never voted for one?

But you’re going to vote Leave because the EU is unelected and doesn’t do what you want. Right, well whose fault is that, then?

I’m guilty of ignorance too. I thought about MEPs today for the first time and I had to look mine up. I’ve never voted for one, never had a clue what they do and that’s my fault. Worse, I find that Farage is one of them and maybe by not engaging, I helped put him there. I hope I get another chance. If we still need MEPs after tomorrow, I’ll be all over mine like a rash and holding them to account.

I’m voting IN so my ignorance doesn’t count in this instance, but if you’re voting Leave and you’re just as guilty, please think again.

The EU Referendum – Four Tories & a UKipper?

I wish this were fiction but it isn’t; tomorrow we decide as a nation whether to stay in the European Union or leave it, and the level of debate has been frankly juvenile. With the exception of a significant number of mostly women politicians, some of whom represent the other home nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the key encounters have consisted of bluster, bluff, and braying bellicosity among a small number of men. Tories on the whole and from the same government, with UKIP tagging along seeming to be having the time of its life. It made me wonder who actually wanted this referendum; what was the driving force and where this sudden surge of nationalism came from. Then I wondered what nationalism I was thinking of. Well not the Scots – by all accounts the main reason they voted to stay in the UK was because leaving would have meant negotiating their own membership of the EU and they are in favour of the EU. Wales? They get a great deal of funding from the EU so probably not the Welsh. What about Northern Ireland, then? They border directly onto Ireland (Eire) which is not part of the UK so it will still be a member of the EU after our vote. That border is presently fluid, the two parties having at last put aside the terrible times of the Troubles and become neighbours, crossing and trading freely across a barely perceptible international line. I doubt they would be happy about having to close that border and return to the restrictive regulations of the past.

So what’s left?

What’s left is England which is protected on all sides by sea or friendly home nations but seems to want to cut itself off. Or at least some do. But it isn’t Labour even though some seem a bit luke warm; nor is it the Lib Dems or the Greens, and certainly not the SNP; they’ve been somewhat steamrollered into this by other forces. Predictably, UKIP is a front runner but it isn’t the main player, that’s the Conservatives oddly fighting both sides of the argument from the same side of the House. But when I condense that down I find just four MPs slugging it out – Cameron and Osborne; Boris and Gove – which makes it look less like a national referendum than a school debating society which got out of hand and in which everyone wants to win but no one is actually invested in the outcome.

Those four will be fine whatever happens; they’re political animals and they know how to survive in that world. Some of their colleagues further down the food chain will probably be casualties – too high profile to go unnoticed but not powerful enough to make their own way if they were on the ‘wrong’ side. But what about the rest of us? If we leave, how long before Scotland has another referendum and subsequently cuts its ties with us? Would Wales seek to ally itself with the Scots? And Northern Ireland – the fears for Northern Ireland are that reinstating that border would revive the worst of the nationalist conflicts from which both sides are just recovering. Maybe they would overcome that and once again become a united Ireland; or perhaps they would join with Wales and Scotland to form a kind of Celtic union. Staying with England would seem to be the least favourable option for any of them and raises the prospect of it becoming a nation bordered on all sides not by sea and home nations but sea and nations to which the English would no longer have easy access.

When the dust settles, it will be business as usual for Cameron, Osborne, Boris, and Gove. But they may only be the boss of England; just one Kingdom united with itself and no Britain to make Great, and all because of four men in a one-party power struggle.

The Literary Pig roots around in the Let Me Tell You a Story back story

@TheLiteraryPig, aka Tracy Fells, was one of the first who agreed to have her work included in Let Me Tell You a Story when it wasn’t much more than a twitch of an idea. In her blog she asks the questions neither of us could even have framed in those early days and hopefully gets some answers. It starts with people facing eviction or criminal prosecution …


Tracy has an extensive catalogue of writing ‘hits’ and read her work regularly at West Sussex Writers. Her contributions include Tantric Twister, Wood, and Phoenix and Marilyn.

Self publishers – the Nine Inch Nails* of the literary world?

Self-publishers are now giving the industry a serious run for its money, challenging preconceptions and business models. Unlike their counterparts in the behemoths of the publishing industry, they are all-rounders; IT literate, technically-skilled and both business and media savvy.

So says T. Thurai in a blog about a recent self-publishing conference held by Matador. Why then does it still feel slightly inferior, second rate; more likely than traditional publishing to feature the product of barely literate, ego-driven wannabes?

Let’s contrast this with the music scene: if you write songs – the music and the lyrics – record the album in your bedroom, play all the instruments, multi-track yourself, make a video and upload it to YouTube, maybe design a logo or some kind of visual ID for your work; that’s talent. You subverted the big players, you’re independent, you did your own thing and you’re a creative genius. Now try that with a novel. Couldn’t you get a publisher? Vanity project is it? Self-published – ah. Had to make your own cover too? Better luck next time.

What is this about? Obviously some of it is about editorial control or at least insight; an outside eye that endeavours to improve the quality of the product. Record producers know their stuff as do editors and publishers. But that can also be creatively restrictive – those people have an eye to the market and increasingly that’s driven by a more-of-the-same mentality. Traditionally published authors have spoken about being on a treadmill, contracted to deliver a novel a year in the same format as the one that turned in a good profit; and musicians have described a similarly suffocating process of appearances and gigs, followed by being corralled in a retreat of some kind to come up with more tracks.

Sometimes self-publishing is driven simply by the wish to get a piece of work into print no matter the quality. The response of some such authors to valid criticism has been documented and used as a model for how never to treat reviewers. Those people weren’t ever going to listen but they will keep churning out garbage and it will appear on sites such as Amazon.

Other times the choice is driven by the material – it’s niche, it’s unusual, it’s never going to make a fortune, it doesn’t fit the market. But it’s good and it will work for its target audience if they ever get to see it. That too is likely to find its way to Amazon where it will sit alongside everything else, including the best and the worst.

We’ve all seen the ghost-written autobiographies of celebrities, the ease with which a ‘name’ can translate into a publishing deal that one suspects might never have come about without that initial leg up. We’ve also seen the high status material that is often lauded but, some say, rarely read; and the likes of Fifty Shades that seems to have been read by almost everyone if you can get them to admit it.

What I’m saying is that traditional publishing may no longer be the arbiter of quality it has held itself to be, and that the need for creative outlet by authors with perfectly sound and sometimes astonishingly good material means self publishers may be the indie musicians of the literary scene. On Amazon, these products will sit alongside each other and who will look through the details to identify the publisher? There, at least, is a measure of equality which may be one of the reasons people choose to place their books on the site.

But Amazon skims a great deal off the revenue so it’s a choice between the mask of perceived comparability and a decent return on your investment. Given the arguments regarding quality and in the context of the subjective nature of preference, I’d say it’s about time indie authors were out and proud about their Lulus and Createspaces and the rest. When people can attract millions to vlogs about cooking or fixing things, young women can make millions demonstrating fashion items and make-up, kids in bedrooms can stream out original music from their computers, being shy about self publishing seems about as anachronistic as the traditional publishing industry already seems to be. As Thurai observes, we’re IT and internet savvy; we know about layouts and graphics, we’re connected, and we learn on the hoof. That’s dynamism, that’s 2016.


 *According to Wikipedia, Trent Reznor (who is effectively the whole Nine Inch of the Nails) “… is an outspoken critic of the music industry, particularly the influence that music businesses have exerted upon his creative freedom. Nine Inch Nails has clashed with several music industry corporations, culminating in Reznor’s decision to proceed as an independent artist who does not employ the financial backing of the music industry to fund his creative output.”

Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool“. Ros Barber on self publishing in The Guardian March 21st 2016


Meet the Anthology Authors: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

The last of our anthology authors is Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, a South African poet with a personal history as extraordinary as that of her country. There’s more here.

Selling your books – beware the anchoring effect

This article is from The Conversation; a news outlet funded by a number of universities, and it describes a psychological heuristic called the anchoring effect. I came across it as an undergraduate back in the last Ice Age and I’d forgotten about it but this reminder is timely. Exposure to a given top (or bottom) price makes us adjust our expectations as to what a fair price might be. In this example, seeing a ludicrously priced TV makes the next item on sale seem reasonable despite still being far greater than you might have considered acceptable without that first cognitive prompt.

For us as writers, I’d be concerned that the reverse is at play – sell your book through an outlet with a plethora of discounts and your own price – often not much above cost and sometimes less – might look outrageous. Have a read – re-publishing is by permission.

The science behind our bargain hunting foolishness

Joseph Devlin, UCL

What happens to your brain when you walk into a shop and are faced with a huge, ultra-high definition, 3D television at the startling price of £37,695? Assuming you actually need a new TV, you might dismiss this as ridiculous; laugh at the spendthrift fools who might buy it. And then, very sensibly, you start looking at more reasonably priced options, maybe at around the £1,500 mark. You have just been successfully manipulated. Welcome to the world of anchoring.

The above is precisely what happened to me, and it happens to all of us. Anchoring is a type of cognitive bias where the mere presence of an initial number can have a disproportionate influence on subsequent decision making. The outrageous price of the TV serves as an anchor that nudges customers towards spending more than they want. In other words, the price subconsciously influences your expectations about what you would be willing to pay. Safely back at home, the thought of spending £1,500 on a TV seems once again impossibly extravagant.

This example illustrates three key properties of anchoring. First, and perhaps most importantly: it really works.

Unlike many recent findings in psychology that fail to replicate, the anchoring effect is easy to demonstrate and repeat. For instance, in one experiment, a group of participants was asked whether Mahatma Gandhi was more than 140-years-old when he died. Another group was asked whether he was aged over nine. No one got that question wrong, of course, but when they were asked what age he actually was former group said 67, while the latter said 50. For what it’s worth, Gandhi was 78 when he died. The mere presence of an initial number however ludicrous, changes the perception of what is reasonable.

Court out

The effect is not limited to the lab, but shows up robustly in the real world. In the court room, the damages awarded are strongly influenced by anchors and even sentencing can be affected. In salary negotiations, the starting position influences the final outcome, indicating the importance of making that initial offer.

As susceptible as the rest of us.

The second key thing to bear in mind: everyone does it. Every time you buy an item “on sale” you experience anchoring. The original price influences your expectations so the 25% discount feels like a real bargain. Similarly, cars don’t cost the sticker price – that’s just there to anchor your expectations so negotiating a lower price makes you feel like you got a good deal. And as we have seen with the TV example, retailers take advantage of anchoring with in-store displays featuring extremely expensive items so that the nearby products look better in comparison. Heck, you will even use it when setting the asking price on your house when it’s time to sell.

Now, occasionally, companies get it wrong. A large retail chain in the US thought it was a smart move to eliminate coupons and instead create “everyday low pricing”. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t consider the effect of anchoring and sales quickly dropped. When they reversed their policy, customers started returning. We need that anchor to inform us that we’re getting a bargain.

And that leads on to the final aspect of the phenomenon: no one is immune.

Even when you are aware of cognitive biases, you can still be affected by them and anchoring is a particularly strong bias. Judges are experienced, well-trained, and highly motivated decision makers but even they can still fall prey to systematic biases in their judgments. And despite the fact that I have been teaching psychology for nearly 20 years, you’ve already heard how I fell for it.

The source of all your troubles.
Neil Conway/Flickr, CC BY


So how can you stop getting caught out? The truth is, anchoring is probably impossible to avoid entirely. You can, however, minimise its influence by following some simple steps:

  1. Be aware. Just by knowing what anchoring is and how it can affect your decision making, you limit its effectiveness. Obviously, recognising a nudge is a good start. But it is also worth being aware of your own thought processes. Some research suggests that people are particularly susceptible to cognitive biases when they are happy, making them less critical in evaluating their environment and their own judgements. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting you deliberately put yourself in a foul mood before going shopping with the family.
  2. Do your homework. The more information you have about a product and its price range, the less susceptible you are to anchoring. So before making a significant purchase, get as much unbiased information as you can. Consumer advocacy groups like Which? or Consumer Reports provide independent, evidence-based evaluations of products and services as well as a comparison of prices and are probably a good place to start.
  3. Set limits in advance. If you can decide on price limits before going out, then you are far less likely to go beyond them and make a rash decision. If you know, for instance, that you don’t want to spend more than £15 for a bottle of wine, then you are less likely to pick up the £25 bottle, even though it’s bargain compared to the Château Lafite Rothchild next to it.

Blurred vision?
Megan Cole/Flickr, CC BY

Ultimately cognitive biases like anchoring are fundamental to human decision making and we’re stuck with them. In truth, we probably wouldn’t want to reject them entirely because most of the time they provide rapid shortcuts that work well and save us a ton of mental effort. The flip side is that we are mostly unaware of it happening and if we’re not careful, a clever bit of anchoring can see us merrily walking out of the shopping centre clutching a futuristic TV, thinking we’ve just bagged an incredible bargain.

The Conversation

Joseph Devlin, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Our brains produce rhythmic activity at a similar rate to the syllables in speech’ – new research

I wonder if those same brain rhythms, supplemented by voice as in the anthology Let Me Tell You a Story, might enhance the reading experience for people whose reading is interrupted by stumbles over unfamiliar words. The article below is re-published with permission.

In loud rooms our brains ‘hear’ in a different way – new findings

Joachim Gross, University of Glasgow and Hyojin Park, University of Glasgow

When we talk face-to-face, we exchange many more signals than just words. We communicate using our body posture, facial expressions and head and eye movements; but also through the rhythms that are produced when someone is speaking. A good example is the rate at which we produce syllables in continuous speech – about three to seven times a second. In a conversation, a listener tunes in to this rhythm and uses it to predict the timing of the syllables that the speaker will use next. This makes it easier for them to follow what is being said.

Many other things are also going on. Using brain-imaging techniques we know for instance that even when no one is talking, the part of our brain responsible for hearing produces rhythmic activity at a similar rate to the syllables in speech. When we listen to someone talking, these brain rhythms align to the syllable structure. As a result, the brain rhythms match and track in frequency and time the incoming acoustic speech signal.

Hit that perfect beat.

When someone speaks, we know their lip movements help the listener, too. Often these movements precede the speech – opening your mouth, for example – and provide important cues about what the person will say. Yet even on their own, lip movements contain enough information to allow trained observers to understand speech without hearing any words – hence some people can lip-read, of course. What has been unclear until now is how these movements are processed in the listener’s brain.


This was the subject of our latest study. We already knew that it is not just a speaker’s vocal chords that produce a syllable rhythm, but also their lip movements. We wanted to see whether listeners’ brain waves align to speakers’ lip movements during continuous speech in a comparable way to how they align to the acoustic speech itself – and whether this was important for understanding speech.

Our study has revealed for the first time that this is indeed the case. We recorded the brain activity of 44 healthy volunteers while they watched movies of someone telling a story. Just like the auditory part of the brain, we found that the visual part also produces rhythms. These align themselves to the syllable rhythm that is produced by the speaker’s lips during continuous speech. And when we made the listening conditions more difficult by adding distracting speech, which meant that the storyteller’s lip movements become more important to understand what they were saying, the alignment between the two rhythms became more precise.

Helpful lips.
Rocketclips, Inc

In addition, we found that the parts of the listener’s brain that control lip movements also produce brain waves that are aligned to the lip movements of the speaker. And when these waves are better aligned to the waves from the motor part of the speaker’s brain, the listener understands the speech better. This supports the idea that brain areas that are used for producing speech are also important for understanding speech, and could have implications for studying lip-reading between people with hearing difficulties. Having shown this in relation to a speaker and listener, the next step will be to look at whether the same thing happens with brain rhythms during a two-way conversation.

Why are these insights interesting? If it is correct that speech normally works by establishing a channel for communication through aligning brain rhythms to speech rhythms – similar to tuning a radio to a certain frequency to listen to a certain station – our results suggest that there are other complementary channels that can take over when necessary. Not only can we tune ourselves to the rhythms from someone’s vocal chords, we can tune into the equivalent rhythms from their lip movement. Instead of doing this with the auditory part of our brain, we do it through the parts associated with seeing and movement.

And neither do you need to be a trained lip-reader to benefit – this is why even in a noisy environment such as a pub or a party, most people can still communicate with each other.

The Conversation

Joachim Gross, Professor in Psychology, University of Glasgow and Hyojin Park, Research Associate, University of Glasgow

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Meet the Anthology Authors: embarrassingly, it’s my turn

This anthology began as a small local project, which is why I find myself both editor and contributor, and it grew. The reasons behind it are here and they have to do with literacy and privacy, and the indignity of having things read to you when you’re an adult. This book provides a model of what could be done to alleviate those problems. More.