All posts by David Price

Heading into the Future with Confidence

Everyone takes stock at New Year and views the future with a whole range of feelings. Resolutions are a significant part of this: even if often they are fairly trivial, they do indicate a determination to behave differently, for the sake of health and wellbeing. I had a difficult year last year but feel I can look forward to the coming year with a fair amount of optimism. I didn’t make a resolution as such but I am determined to face the future in a more positive way. In many ways, my life is better than it was at this time last year.

At the beginnProfile picing of last year, I was starting the process of separating from and divorcing my wife. The separation as it turned out involved leading separate lives but still living in the same house: never an easy option but not uncommon. Now I am in my own flat in a new town and in the process of making my flat my home. I have my two cats with me, which helps – although they are a responsibility too!

In a way, this is just one more instance of reinventing myself. I have had a number of career changes in the last 40 years, including the best decision I ever made: to leave my dull job in 1983 and go and study for the degree I should have taken when I left school. This also gave me the opportunity to study Russian and visit the Soviet Union at a very exciting time, just after Mikhail Gorbachëv had become Party leader and had begun the process of reform that eventually led to the abandonment of the socialist system in Eastern Europe. And I have now created a course looking at the social history of Eastern Europe after the Second World War and how internal issues contributed to the huge changes that happened in 1989.

This is described as the “failure of communism” but as I tell my students, what was attempted in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is not what Karl Marx originally envisaged. The imposition of an ideology and forcing the people to accept it is turning upside down his original concept. We don’t really know whether Marxism as an ideology or an analysis of history “works” because a true revolution from below overthrowing the capitalist oppressors hasn’t actually happened. But of course, perhaps it never will.

But my students often counter with the “human nature” argument, saying that human nature is to be competitive and not cooperate. I still maintain that we don’t know; we don’t know whether in the distant future, everyone will recognise that the best course of action is to cooperate, with no one in control, giving orders and trying to dominate. Surely progress implies a better system of human interaction, not only the creation of electronic gadgets or tackling dangerous diseases.

Of course, there are a number of science fiction stories – books, films and TV series – that describe a dystopian future when the hopes for technology have been dashed and what has emerged is a disturbing distortion of human interaction. Some of these works are clearly satirical, using such visions to comment on today’s society, or on the aspirations of some in society for a better world – hence Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But it’s important to recognise that these stories are often written as a warning that, human nature being what it is, the scenarios described could develop.

Fear of the future can be used as an excuse to try to put the clock back, with the explanation that we’ve gone to far and we need to go back to old values and traditions. Forms of extreme nationalism and religious fanaticism are symptoms of this fear. If people can truly feel a sense of comfort from these positions, I suppose they have some value – but mostly they promote intolerance and even extreme violence.

I’ve always believed that we should try to understand points of view that differ from our own, or political ideas and systems that differ from the one we live in. I wanted to learn Russian in the 1980s following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, an event that prompted many to predict a very gloomy future indeed. I wanted to be able to talk to Russians and find out their take on this. In the event, my Russian was never good enough to cope with complex arguments and I soon became aware that Soviet citizens would be unlikely to express their opinions freely. But my position remains valid. We still need to strive to find common ground with people and the only way to do this is to listen to their points of view. I believe that if we do this, the future will be better – and more importantly, I believe we can do this.

So I look forward to the future not just for myself as an individual, but also for the world in general.

The Pretty Little Horsebreakers

After writing my book on the cancan, imaginatively titled Cancan!, I often received invitations to speak on radio and TV about the dance. One of the most memorable occasions was on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in 2008, where I had the honour to be interviewed by Jenni Murray. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the first performance of the famous cancan music by Jacques Offenbach. As Jenni Murray put it in her introduction, the cancan is primarily regarded as a women’s dance, hence its inclusion in Woman’s Hour.

The Pretty Little Horsebreakers in 2007
The Pretty Little Horsebreakers in 2007

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the cancan with Jenni – and with two dancers from The Pretty Little Horsebreakers troupe from Sussex, who “appeared” on the radio in full costume! Jenni asked one of them, Mandy Kenward, to demonstrate a high kick and she nearly hit the rather low radio studio ceiling! Strangely, at that time I hadn’t met many dancers performing the cancan today, although I’d interviewed a number who’d had appeared in cabaret and stage shows in the past. So it was great to meet Mandy and Michelle that day. The Pretty Little Horsebreakers are still going strong – and even offer cancan dancing lessons for those who dare!

When the interview was broadcast a week later, I got some great feedback and realised that the subject was ideal for talks at Women’s Institute meetings. So I applied to take part in speakers’ selection evenings for WIs in Northamptonshire (where I live) and Warwickshire (the next county). Over the years I’ve given dozens of talks to WI branches, and also to other groups – men’s groups included! – in Northants and Warwicks. The cancan talk always goes down very well, and some groups have even invited me back to give my other popular talk: on the Parisian courtesans of the 19th century.

All my talks are illustrated, and the cancan talk has film clips and music. The cancan is a vibrant, exciting dance and clearly needs visuals to show what it’s all about. The history of the cancan is extraordinary – if you attend one of my talks, you’ll find out how!



The Power Of Words

Antonio Litterio: Power of Words
Antonio Litterio: Power of Words

I once read an article by a former Cabinet Minister and now a prolific writer in which he criticized editors as frustrated writers, apparently forever determined to alter his prose to satisfy their own limited creative urges. If those are the sort of editors he’s experienced, he’s right to be annoyed. An editor should never do anything to interfere with the writer’s creativity and the sense of what is written.

I’m in the fortunate position of having been a writer, a re-writer, an editor, a copy-editor and a proofreader, as well as self-publishing my own book, so I can appreciate all points of view on the matter – and I’m also familiar with the boundaries of each role.

I remember reading the editor’s comments when he worked on my book Cancan!, which was originally published in 1998. As an author, you’re very proud of your work and it does seem a little intrusive to have someone picking at it and pointing out errors or ambiguities. But I swallowed my pride and had to admit he’d done a very good job. Acting on his suggestions, I re-wrote a few passages and the resulting text was in far better shape.

When I edit someone else’s text myself, I aim to keep the sense of a sentence or paragraph, and I’ll never alter something just for the sake of it. The writer is the expert and the argument or description must still feel like theirs. I only change the wording if it needs to be clearer – and sometimes I’ll ask the author if I’m unsure what they meant to say.

Most text for publication is written in a formal way but occasionally the writer or publisher prefers the informal style, with contractions and even slang terms. This informal blog is an example, although I still find it hard to use slang! If you want me to edit your work, I can fit in with whatever style suits you.

It’s always better when you write something – whether business letter or legal document, novel or scientific thesis, newspaper article or celebrity biography – to get somebody else to read it as well (my wife has read this!). The “second pair of eyes” approach is so important: what seems to be in clear and plain English to a writer, can be ambiguous or even incomprehensible to other people. Readers don’t like mistakes.  As a 14 year old, my daughter spotted a glaring error in a very well-known novel that has sold millions – some spoken dialogue was attributed to the wrong character. Somehow the editor had missed that – well, none of us is perfect!

Oh, by the way, if you spot a mistake in this website, it will of course have been put there deliberately.



The Work I Do

It’s a long time now since I gave up work at the BBC to devote my time to freelance work – initially because I was missing seeing my new daughter growing up. I had to leave home early in the morning when she was still asleep and arrived back in the evening when – you guessed it – she was asleep again.

My daughter’s now studying at university and my son’s in his first year of A Levels. It’s certainly been a privilege to be able to see them grow and mature – some parents don’t get the chance to do that because of their busy schedules. So freelance work may have its disadvantages, like weekends being irrelevant when the work’s there, but being around for my children has made it all worthwhile.

One great thing about my freelance work is that I’ve read about fascinating subjects and worked with very interesting people. I’ve edited cookery books, travel guides, even a book on Feng Shui for cats!  But apart from editing the unofficial biography of the oligarch and football club owner Roman Abramovich, I’ve rarely been offered any text even remotely connected with my editorial work for the BBC, where my area of expertise was communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

But I’m glad now to be exploring these areas once again in my teaching of adult education classes. I’ve just taught a course on life behind the Iron Curtain, and next spring I’m reprising my one-day course: ”Why Did The Berlin Wall Fall Down?”, examining the weaknesses of the various countries in Eastern Europe and how they led to the collapse of the system we knew as communism.

Liberty leading the people
Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People

Researching my book on the cancan gave me a fascinating insight into French society in the 19th century, and that subject too has grown into an adult education course. It’s a social history course looking at the events that affected ordinary people, from 1815 up to the eve of the First World War, including revolutions and rebellions, social and political scandals, how and why Paris came to look like it does today and – yes – the history of that hugely popular dance, the cancan.

I’m really enjoying the enthusiasm of people attending my modern history courses. And I’m also enjoying reading some of my daughter’s university essays – because, I’m delighted to say, she has chosen to study history!