Sherlock and I

I was pleasantly surprised recently to discover that my first book shared a publisher with Sherlock Holmes (ie Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

George Newnes also published Tit-Bits (don’t go there!) whose occasional contributor, Alfred Harmsworth, founded The Daily Mail. It’s amazing what you turn up when you start digging.

Sherlock Holmes

My book — stifle that yawn — was on technical writing and was the first thing I did after university. Like most hopelessly dedicated writers I find I can scribble some thousands of words on any subject that I know nothing about, say, botulism.

Of course, one prefers the topics closest to one’s heart, in my case, psychology and mysticism. So why write a book on technical writing, which I didn’t even know existed as a separate subject? It was a bit of a misunderstanding actually, a pattern that was to repeat itself in later years… often to my considerable advantage.

The first job I did was advertised as “Writer Wanted”. Great, I thought, just up my street.

At the interview the first question I was asked was “Do you know Atlas?”

I replied, “Yes, I’ve got one at home.”

“You clearly don’t then! Never mind, we’ll soon teach you. It’s only got a thousand words and they are all in the Oxford dictionary.”

It was explained that Atlas was a drastically cut down version of English comprising mainly technical terms strung together with the bare minimum of connecting tissue. Shakespeare it is not.

I was intrigued, so accepted the offer. The work itself was so boring, I decided to write a book in the intervals, of which there were many. Hence my first published title was Technical Writing, which was commissioned by Newnes. Hi Sherlock!

I couldn’t resist adding some purple passages to the book which must have confused the engineers trying to make sense of it. The section on style of writing quite perplexed a few of them. Here’s part of it:

There exists a considerable body of opinion which believes that technical English is a subset of the language with only a tenuous dependence on the real thing. The idea is that such texts as are written would be immune from misinterpretation and could convey technical descriptions in man- or machine-readable form. … It remains a strange phenomenon that technological man, with all his complex artefacts, should look to the future in terms of the palaeolithic past.

Despite that, they have made impressive strides lately among those who believe that technology and its implementation is enough to guarantee human happiness. They have certainly struck a chord with the stereotypical engineer who is “a whizz with wires and things” despite his semi-illiteracy. The reply to this tendency lies in a statement by the French historian, Renan: “La verite consiste dans les nuances” — “Truth consists in shades of meaning”.

It went down a treat and I was soon looking for a new job. Life just isn’t fair sometimes. But at least I was now a published author.

PS: And, yes, I know the title should be “Sherlock and me”, but “I” sounds a lot grander, even if grammatically incorrect. Grammar isn’t everything!

John Evans