Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Basic Engly Twentyfido

I take language seriously – spelling, punctuation, grammar, the whole kit and caboodle. I think about what I'm going to say before I say it and that goes doubly for whatever I commit to paper and triply for anything I'm having published. Of course one can't be serious all the time. At least this particular one can't. Language can – and should – be fun.

The humour I appreciate most in this life is typified by someone like Ronnie (Fork Handles) Barker whose writing revolves around wordplay, especially puns. Or Steven (What's another word for Thesaurus?) Wright. I agree with Nabokov that the pun is mightier than the word (not his precise words). People who don't know how to play with words and enjoy playing with them cannot properly work with them.

But there is one man who only has to open his mouth and I start to smile, a man who will be forever remembered for talking the most entertaining nonsense in the world, "Professor" Stanley Unwin.

Unwin was the inventor and finest exponent of Unwinese (or, "Basic Engly Twentyfido", as he would put it) which The Times described "…a glottal-stopped gobbledegookian language that sounded deceptively like English trying to swallow itself." He was well known in the UK, from the mid-fifties up till his death in 2002 at the age of 90, but I doubt the rest of the world would have heard much of him. He was best known for cameos and short skits – frankly it's hard to listen to him for more than a few minutes – but his humour was popular with advertisers, even if they had to add subtitles. He even did the narration on the B-side of the Small Faces album, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake.

Unwin attributed his gift to his mother who, he related, once told him that on the way home from work she had "falolloped over and grazed her kneeclappers." He also acknowledged the poet Edward Lear as a source of inspiration. Much to my delight his humour works well on paper. There are a number of lengthy examples to be found at including his wonderful takes on Goldyloppers and the Three Bearloaders and The Pidey Pipeload of Hamling.

Here's the opening section of a short talk he gave on language:

England joys all concentrate. Corruption of the English, well, English language, so manifest was so many careless. They mission it a sillibold, like "partic'ly" and intrudes ye an extra one, like "renovenate" instead of "renovate", as I heard by a zealous cockney who knowed it all. No bother, 'e think it, before out of the voice box he ho. Oh, no.

Listen to it here. It won't make any more sense mind.

Unwin is not entirely unique. Other comics have used gibberish at times. There is, for example, Suel Forrester, a Saturday Night Live character created by Chris Katten. Chaplin does it too in Modern Times and we can connect the dots right back 500 years to the time of the jesters who spoke a made-up language called Grammelot. There is a lengthy interchange at Language Log which discusses this if you are interested. Their related article on Simlish is also worth a gander.

Unwin’s devoted fans included Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, the Monty Python cast and John Lennon whose books, John Lennon in His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, he openly admitted were influenced by Unwin's work.

A typical early example from Carry on Regardless (with onscreen translations courtesy of Kenneth Williams) can be found on YouTube.

A later example of his style can be found in the BBC archive. He was always a popular guest on chat shows even into his eighties.

There is so much new material available to people nowadays that no one has the time to cope with it all, let alone set aside time to remember so-called has-beens, and that is sad. It's easy to say that a book or a film or a person has had their day but, if we were to take that reasoning to its logical conclusion, there would be no more Shakespeare or Beethoven or Charlie Chaplin because they're all well past their sell-by date.

Take a few minutes out and enjoy these clips for what exactly they are.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Guess what reading is

This is reading. You've just done it. You've read. You're still reading and the odds are you will continue to read till the end of this sentence at least. We do it every day. We look at this word, then that one and then the next. Or block of words. Most people, it seems, read a whole chunk at a time because the meaning of words is so often dependent on context. But that's only a part of it.

Here's a clever man's definition of reading:

Reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. It involves an interaction between thought and language. Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. The ability to anticipate that which has not been seen, of course, is vital in reading, just as the ability to anticipate what has not yet been heard is vital in listening. - Kenneth Goodman in Journal of the Reading Specialist (1967)

A not so clever-sounding – but far more accessible – article can be found at Reading Rockets.

In my teens, I thought I wanted to be a composer. I'd still like to be a composer or a painter. Surely one of them has got to be easier than being a writer. The thing about being a composer is that you compose for something, a piano or a violin or a group of hands clapping and each of the aforementioned musical instruments has its limitations. Every modern piano has 88 keys (seven octaves plus a minor third) and that is your lot. Sure you can arrange for nuts, bolts and pieces of rubber to be lodged between and entwined around the strings but there are limits. Then there is the performer. John Ogden or David Helfgott is going to get more out of a piano than your Aunt Sadie down the pub of a Friday night and because of this many composers write specifically with a certain performer in mind because they know they can push the boundaries with them.

You, gentle reader, are my performer-instrument. The problem is I don't know you from Adam. I don't know your abilities or willingness to commit to this piece of writing. Are you a skimmer or a close reader? If I stick in a big word, will you look it up or trip over it? Or what about l'étrangère expression? (That would be 'a foreign phrase' in French). So what do I do, write in nice, short internet-friendly sentences? Should I treat you like a nine-year old? That's what some reports say the average reading age is in Britain.

I asked the question recently if the verb 'to savour' has become defunct. Think of it in terms of food: there are ads on the TV all the time for food stores like Iceland – two curries for a quid (you get the idea) – and there are kids out there whose mothers never bake and the only cooking they do is reheating. It's all they know.

Eating to live and reading because you're made to are not poles apart but decent food and good reading are both an acquired taste; people need wee tasters here and there, like they do in supermarkets. Step up flash fiction.

The internet is built around the fast food mentality, little gobbets of information that don't take much getting down, but the thing is, the important thing is, that this is where the readers of the future are, looking to be entertained and it is still a word-centric environment.

I read an article recently, Are You Writing with Clarity? which makes some good points about writing for today's readers but there is a danger. If we reduce our writing to simply conveying information there is a very good chance our readers will lose out on the experience.

Have a look at Book-a-Minute Classics. By the way, the Of Mice and Men summary is wrong. The dog belonged to Candy not Lennie and it was Carlson that shot him. I won't tell you who George shot in case you've not read the book. But that's what you get when you try and cut to the chase.

I used to have a wife who was a voracious reader and very kindly would summarise all her books for me which is why I know far more about Erma Bombeck that a man my age ought to. (Actually I've forgotten most of it but you get my drift). It's like having someone pre-chew your food for you.

Reading is more than getting the answer to a puzzle. It is working out the answers for yourself and, unlike a sum where there is only one right answer, every single book ever written has the potential to provide many different answers. As you change, as you grow and your life experiences expand, so do the levels at which you can appreciate good writing. Some of the very best writing raises questions that it leaves the readers to answer for themselves.

The thing is, the really annoying thing is, that the people I want to get that message are they very people who would never read an article like this. I'm preaching to the choir. Spread the word.

Friday 23 November 2007

Reasoning rhymes

Andrew Philip has just posted the latest in a long series of blogs about rhyme on his site Tonguefire to which I've just added a comment.

It is a fascinating and involved discussion and one every poet should have a look at. We need more writers like this.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

If ain't broke don't fix it. In fact, if it's broke don't fix it either.


It is true that every
seven years we change.

Turning fourteen I started
thinking poetry.

I am now twenty-nine and
safe for six more years.

15 December 1988

A romantic notion exists which states that our bodies renew themselves every seven years. I first heard this from my father and of course everything our dads tell us is the truth. I never questioned this growing up even though I could see flaws in the logic. I've since heard that some of our body parts do exactly this only not always every seven years. I've also heard that it's bunkum.

Personally I don't care but it did start me thinking about what exactly might change every seven years. Certainly people do change as they grow older. Much of that has to do with their upbringings and experiences but I wondered if the seven year rule might affect me in ways other than refreshing my spleen. What if the change subtly altered who I was?

I cannot explain what it is like to think in poetry. There are people who suffer from a condition known as synaesthesia, they see sounds as colours. I say suffer, but I wonder if that truly is the right word for it. It's not normal, true, but since when was being normal so cool? Most normal people dream about being special in some field of endeavour whether that be football, picking up women (or men (or both)) or being able to put things into words. The thing about seeing sounds is that most people would regard that as abnormal. I've always expected most people would consider thinking in poetry the same but then I grew up in a society where simply liking poetry was odd on a good day and something never to be mentioned in public the rest of the time.

The thing was, for whatever the reason, I had this ability. I jokingly say it was because my parents dropped me on my head as a kid. It's not actually a joke. I managed to find my way from the kitchen table onto the floor when I was a baby when my mother's back was turned. Anyway, whether by accident or design, chance or circumstance, I wound up this way. And I've always been afraid that something would come along and "fix" me.

Understanding is something that's highly prized, way past mere knowledge, not perhaps as cool as insight or wisdom but well on the road there. There are lots of things in this life that I don't know and probably even more things I don't understand. I don't know how my body works. I don't need to know. It does it just fine on its own. I don't understand where babies come from despite witnessing my own daughter's birth. I know where she came from and I know how she got there. But I don't understand it. I could explain it to a kid but not to a biologist, not without him breaking into fits of laughter. And it is the same with the writing. My body does it. Not everyone's does. I have hammer-toes. Not everyone has.

So I'm not normal. It doesn't make me a bad person. And thankfully it's something I can attend to in the comfort of my own home. Perhaps I should try and get my next PC on the NHS. Or at least a decent pen.

Saturday 17 November 2007

The quest for the perfect sentence

I read an interesting article a while back by Wendy Keller called The desire not to write, a part of which goes:

The reason writers don't write is because we simply know that language cannot begin to convey accurately the words in our hearts, minds and spirits.

She has a point.

As I may have mentioned I have a fondness for the work of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Well, not all of it. I own all of it and I've read all of it but some of his early prose goes right over my head. As a young man, a young intellectual, his work was deliberately esoteric and referenced now quite obscure classical literature, heroes of his like Dante and Racine, but over the years he moved farther and farther from his origins towards, to use his expression, "a literature of the unword". In fact he waged a lifelong battle with words and suffered frequently from bouts of crippling writer's block. He was rarely satisfied with his efforts and always self-deprecatory when presenting new works. His final text, a poem literally written on his deathbed, What Is The Word? finds its narrator struggling to express himself in words. Of interest is the fact that Beckett wrote the piece in French (a language he had escaped to in the nineteen-fifties to rid himself of as much English cultural baggage as possible) and then immediately translated the poem, clearly aware that his time was limited. An excellent article on this poem can be found at lingua franca where Colin Duckworth writes:

He seems to have regarded the very qualities of English as obstacles to what he wanted to express…

Beckett really held the very opposite view to Wendy Keller, that English offered him too much scope. The fact is that, under different circumstances, English can either be a famine or a feast. It certainly makes its words earn their keep.

The bottom line, though, is that writers work with words. They are not perfect. But then clay isn't ideal nor is wood or metal and yet artists have shaped these over the years into impressive, albeit imperfect, works of art. Why should words be so different? I'm reminded of one of the most interesting characters in Camus's novel The Plague: Grand, a low-level clerk with a passion for writing who has been working on the same opening sentence for years, unwilling to move on until he is convinced his first sentence is perfect.

There are times, especially as I slouch towards old age, that, like the narrator in What Is The Word? I struggle for the right perfect word but more often than not it's not simply the one word that won't tow the line, it's all of them that refuse conspire to work together; they gang up against me and keep sending bullying me back to the beginning to start fail again only a bit better each time, to paraphrase Beckett. The real question is, why don't I commit literary suicide and be done with it, instead of, like Sisyphus, insisting on trying to write what I know is impossible?

I can't write more. I'll write more.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

The 10-20-30-40-50 meme

Fifty years ago: 1958 (minus two years old)

There were no books in the house in which I was born. Probably a bible. Possibly a dictionary. God alone knows how they produced a reader, let alone a writer. I never saw either of my parents pick up a work of fiction other than to read a story to one of the children.

Forty years ago: 1968 (eight years old)

I used to cycle down to the local library every Saturday morning. I was regularly first in the queue. The librarian, whom I remember as the big-bosomed, twin-set and pearls variety of librarian who smelled of eau de cologne, was a bit of a tartar (and probably had nowhere near as pneumatic a bosom as my memory has ascribed to her) who would only let me take out books from the pitiful children's section though I could wander freely throughout the place as long as I didn't get under anyone's feet. Her husband was a local councillor or something of that ilk and the woman, as far as I could see, pretty much looked down her nose at everyone.

On one occasion I took out a book in the morning and returned it in the afternoon, much to her annoyance. Did I not know the library had rules? It was then I was issued the extra tickets, having only been able to get one book at a time up until then, and told never to try that trick again.

As for what I read? Pretty much everything, but the only book I can remember was Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It had a pink cover with fine polka-dots all over it. For all that, I don't remember being especially interested in books as a child. The library was a place to go, an adventure away from family life, an excuse to get out of the house.

Thirty years ago: 1978 (eighteen years old)

There's an old Woody Allen joke:

I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.

When I was in my late teens I read – for me – voraciously but I was more interested in chalking up books read that in the subtleties of what I was reading. And I only read books by Nobel Prize winners (or Hugo or Nebula Award winners for sci-fi); I can't have thought much of the Pulitzer I guess. I recently reread Nabokov's Transparent Things and, apart from the vaguest recollection of the hero's father dying, nothing had stuck, not a sausage, not even the smell of sausages cooking in next door's kitchen. This time round I discovered an intricate, layered book that deserves to be studied as opposed to simply being read.

It is an age thing, I'm sure, but there was no time when I was eighteen for close reading. It didn't matter that I didn't get what I was skimming over. Apart from the fact that I now own a faded and foxed copy of the little book, purchasing it was a total waste of my time. I doubt the reading of it could even have counted as relaxation at the time.

Twenty years ago: 1988 (twenty-eight years old)

Is there such a thing as reader's block? If there is, I've suffered from it several times in my life and this was one of them. My life was full of wives and kids and work and responsibilities. I had no time for anything. The only things I read were comics. I had started collecting them as a hobby, something that involved as little brain activity as possible and satisfied my innate desire to order things.

A year later the Vertigo line premiered with the ground-breaking Sandman series but in 1988 I was still buying whatever Marvel or DC titles appealed to me at the time. I had no particular loyalty to either company and they've both gone through highs and lows. I've never tired reading Batman and the X-Men but I would always veer towards those with not only great art – sometimes I would buy a comic purely for the cover art – but great stories. My daughter recently discovered Neil Gaiman the novelist and I made a point of presenting her with a trade paperback of Sandman so she could see Neil Gaiman the comic book writer.

Ten years ago: 1998 (thirty-eight years old)

I first discovered Beckett when I was nineteen. I bought Murphy and his collected shorter plays and didn't get them. By the time I was in my late thirties I was mentally ready to give him another go.

I have never read anything that comes close to Beckett's prose trilogy made up of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable and I doubt I ever will. Reading them was hard work especially digging my way out of the morass of language that is The Unnameable. I cannot imagine the effort it must have taken him to write the three of them, which he did, one after the other, apart from a break of a couple of months during which he rattled off a wee play called Waiting for Godot.

Should reading be such hard work? Not all of it, no, but not everything in life is easy and it's wrong to present it as such. I saw a TV dramatisation about the Holocaust and I remember thinking at the time, how the hell have they managed to sugar-coat this? And they had. Somehow they had.

There is no sugar-coating anywhere in Beckett. There is no meat on the bones either. Since then I have bought, read, watched and listened to everything he has written and then I started to study him. Some people might regard me as an expert but I'm nothing near that, just a fan, nothing more than a fan.

Today: 2008 (forty-eight years old)

I joined Goodreads a few weeks back. For selfish reasons, to use the site to promote my writing once I get round to unleashing it on an unsuspecting public. I went through all the books on my shelves and wrote reviews of about a hundred of them, a decent enough cross-section, and then I started adding in the books I'm reading just now.

What got me was how little I could remember about so many of the books I own. I picked up The Last of the Just and I can go one step further than Woody on this one: it's about Russian Jews. And that's sad. So I've started rereading some of the books I bought when I was in my teens. They’ve all seen better days but then so have I.

Monday 12 November 2007

X-Factor for authors anyone?

The Times, the UK's newspaper of record (at least that's what Wikipedia calls it), published an article on Friday, Jeanette Winterson on the cult of personality, to which I responded. I have a lot of time for Winterson. I don't always get her writing but I enjoy not getting it. It's a good article, as you would expect, well-written and humorous and worth a read, as is the response I posted yesterday but which only went online today.

You can read both here.

Saturday 10 November 2007

Practice, practice, practice

This is a response to A Recipe for Creative People.

Practice is great. I'm all for practice. But, if you're doing things wrong in the first place all the practice in the world isn't going to help much. It's simply going to ingrain bad habits. Sure, sometimes by doing something over and over again you start to realise that your method isn't necessarily working and you start to investigate other ways of working, but I think that's the exception rather than the norm.

When I used to weight train back in my twenties I followed a fairly strict regime. First you eat, and you eat well, then you let the food digest, then you exercise, then you rest. If you trained every day, which I did, you never worked the same set of muscles two days in a row. And, on top of all of that, I read everything I could about new food supplements (I found it hard to eat 3000 calories a day) and improved methods of training.

The most important thing was that, before I started, I studied how to do the kind of weight training I was interested in, what equipment I needed and what kind of training regime I should be considering. Before I began I had a plan, a plan I tweaked over the months, but a solid starting point nevertheless. I had a goal and I had a time frame.

Writing is no different. First I read regularly. It is a proven fact that good writers are good readers. I don't read too much and I vary what I read. I write daily but it's not always fiction. Personally, I edit as I write. It's a different kind of writing. And I don't overdo it. Sure, every now and then I've felt supercharged and write for hours and hours but that's rare, a treat. I also love to read or listen to authors talking about how they write, just in case I can see a better way of doing it.

The thing about writing is that it is easy to pick up a pen and get stuck in. Personally I don't see it as any different from weight training. There is method and technique to writing and there are plenty of books out there that talk about the various aspects of writing, character development, plotlines etc. Most aspiring writers need to read these.

I suppose it's an ego thing but I suspect that most writers like to think that they're naturals. Well, a few are. But natural ability is only a starting point. With a good attitude and a decent training regime who knows what you could write.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Why is writing not just talking written down?

I think Woody Allen writes wonderful banter. I can watch his films over and over again, like a kid who knows what's coming and delights in the fact that it does. The fact that a wee old Jewish man spent ages scribbling it all down on yellow legal pads whilst lying on his bed in a posh Manhattan apartment doesn't really come through. And that's why the banter is so brilliant, because it's not off-the-cuff; it's been mulled over, taken out, put back in, reworded, fiddled with and, only then, does it feel like a throw-away remark. The same goes for all those wonderful period dramas the BBC churns out.

I do make a habit of reading what I've written out loud. To my mind, and I'm not the only author to think this, if it doesn’t work when read aloud then it simply doesn't work. This is where I struggle with a lot of E. E. Cummings' poetry; I don't know how to read it most of the time. There are exceptions like the beautiful poem about the rain having small hands, somewhere i have never travelled, the one Woody has Michael Caine read in Hannah and Her Sisters, but they are few and far between.

Actually this is where I have a problem with my own writing. I have a bent – my wife would say I'm more twisted than bent – to write as I speak and I do tend to speak in convoluted sentences with plenty of asides (and occasionally asides within the asides) and it can be a daunting, nay off-putting, task to punctuate sentences like that and manage to retain the flavour. She's always nipping my head to cut out the conjunctions and the semi-colons and not to use ten words when three will do very nicely thank you very much. (I'll have a fight on my hands keeping that sentence as I wrote it). She, of course, has my very best interests at heart. In fact, every word you're reading right now has been scrutinised by her first. She is a ruthless editor. She needs to be with me.

Somehow we manage to find middle-ground though not always without debate.

My literary hero, Samuel Beckett had a reputation for being totally inflexible and never allowing the blue pencil near his work. Actually that's quite untrue. He was always open to compromise. And if a genius like him was game for it then who am I to make a fuss? Of course I still do. Every word is precious, every comma and, you can jolly well bet, every semi-colon.

Say what you mean and mean what you say is easier said than done and I have to say there have been many times when I wish I had my editor perched on my shoulder like one of those wee angels or devils before I opened my big mouth and put my foot in it but that's life and life sucks and yet for some strange reason I keep insisting on writing about it despite the fact that it refuses to fit neatly into tiny little sentences that actually make sense when you read them.

I have to go now. My wife is having an allergic reaction to that last paragraph.

Sunday 4 November 2007

Raking in the ashes

On November 5th it's Guy Fawkes Night here in the UK. When I was a kid it was something we used to get very excited about. Every community had their own bonfire. Ours used to be on a site behind Third Avenue before they built the industrial estate there; in fact my earliest memory is my dad come looking for me there while it was being constructed and it was safe for a four-year-old to wander the streets on his own. Nowadays, unless you live in Sussex, all that has stopped. Some of the local councils do fireworks displays but the whole community thing has died a death.

It's another Bonfire I remember fondly. It didn't have nearly as long a life but it burned bright and left a beautiful corpse.

It was a literary journal that wouldn't publish poetry without commentary. The reason? To try and provide some insight into the writing process, to help younger poets who were simply dumping raw emotions onto a page and thinking they were poems just because they said they were. There should be more magazines like that. I was sorry to see it go.

The only other one I knew of went by the unremarkable name of Poetry Information. It stopped publishing circa 1982 and I miss it still. It was a large format magazine (A4) about 120-odd pages in size. It didn't publish poems or stories. It focused on reviews of poetry books, lists of poetry magazines (which were legion back then) and articles discussing poetic technique. It was there I first read Tom Leonard's piece on William Carlos Williams, The Locust Tree in Flower, and why it had difficulty flowering in Britain, a greatly abridged version of which can be found here.

The only time I'd had poetry broken down was at school and I never paid nearly enough attention. But isn't that always the case? Of course I'd never heard of Williams but I'd never heard of Ezra Pound or even Walt Whitman, let alone the likes of Allen Ginsberg. Mind you I do remember a young, bearded, soft-spoken trainee teacher trying his level best to introduce us to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'Christ Climbed Down'. For God's sake I'd never even read any T S Eliot and he's British.

More poets should be willing to do this. I think it is a duty to pass on what we know. Poetry is not spilling out your guts and bunging in line breaks every now and then. That's a good starting place – get it down on paper while the fire is hot – but I like to return to that kind of outpouring later and rake through the ashes to see what's salvageable and I work with that.

Gustav Holst once observed a composer's most vital piece of equipment is an eraser. The same could be said about writers. I recently discarded 10,000 words. I've mentioned this before. It wasn't easy, but I would never have done that as a new writer. Every word was precious. When I look back at the poetry I churned out in my teens and it is all pretty awful, damp squibs and duds, BUT every now and then there was an idea, a spark or a couple of lines that deserve to be looked at again. Maybe one day I'll have a go at that.

In the meantime keep reading this blog. Every now and then I'll slip in a wee article explaining the hows and whys behind an old – or maybe a new – poem. They still crop up every now and then, like family, and you never turn family away.

Thursday 1 November 2007

A dung beetle's guide to the universe

One of the things that has concerned me for a while is the fact that very little of my work is easily classifiable. It certainly isn’t mainstream, but neither does it fit neatly into the big genres of, say, science fiction or crime fiction or even romantic fiction. My wife – lovely woman – suggested my work was slipstream fiction. It sounds cooler than cross-genre and not as pompous as fabulation.

It's becoming more and more popular in music: fusion, cross-over artists. I suppose they have a similar problem, if it's not this and it's not that then what is it?

The term slipstream (something of a play on mainstream) was coined by cyberpunk (Now would that be a sub-genre?) author Bruce Sterling in an article originally published in SF Eye in July 1989. He wrote: "...this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility." The complete article is available here.

I like the sound of it but then I think 'slipstream' is a cool word, like 'osmosis' or 'quincunx'. It's a fun word to say unless you have a speech impediment. But I digress.

Labels are handy things. I like it when I go to the supermarket and there are biscuits in the biscuit isle. But they can be vague too. I mean, what they hell is curry-flavoured when it's at home? Or meat-flavoured? The Web loves labels only it calls them tags. I'll name that tune in one. Ah come on!

Even if you have the luxury of a film's tagline, how can you possibly do justice to five years' work in a single pithy sentence or two? Take my first book, Living With the Truth, in which a man gets the chance to spend two days with the personification of truth, what would the tag line be for that? How about:

Everyone wants to know the truth. Yeah, right.

Okay, it's not quite Be afraid. Be very afraid but it has some punch to it.

What I'm on about is categorising. Where on the bookshelf would you put my novel, in the humour, literary fiction or science fiction? It has elements of them all. I keep describing it as a cross between Douglas Adams and Franz Kafka and I can't seem to wriggle free from that no matter how much I try. It begins, like The Trial, with a man alone in his flat. And then comes the proverbial knock on the door. Only it's not Ford Prefect here to advise his friend that the world is about to be demolished, rather it's Truth, like something straight out of Monty Python, simply bursting to tell Jonathan where all the wrong turns in his life have been.

Or how about the third novel, The More Things Change, where a frustrated writer runs into God in a park, goes home, finds a wife he never had when he left, loses his memory, loses the wife, writes a bestselling one-hit-wonder before spending forty years sitting on a park bench acting like some character Beckett might have imagined only to discover that none of the above ever actually happened in real life? And, no, it's not all a dream. Oh, and if you don't have at least a cursory knowledge of Samuel Beckett then ninety percent of the subtle in-jokes and references will go straight over your head.

What can I say? I just wrote the ruddy things.

It is so human to want to organise things, to get ones ducks in a row, to see the butterfly in the inkblot when all it is a stain. (I would call you attention to Exhibit 1, my site logo). I have written four novels. They are new (which is implicit in the word 'novel') and most are over 50,000 words (the arbitrary benchmark for them not to be novellas). I can live with that. I never think of them as any kind of novel other than my kind of novel. I wish someone else wrote novels like me so I could pop out and buy a couple where I don't know the ending. If they do straddle a genre or two, for those who give a toss about such things, it simply means a bigger chunk of the marketplace might be interested in actually listening to what I have to say. That's a good thing. Right?

I get the need to organise things, that there should be a logical trail from Kate Bush to Tori Amos to Regina Spektor, but I don't often see a quirky-singer-songstress subcategory listed anywhere and they do all right.

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