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

Monday 31 December 2007

You've never had it so good

Writing is a lonely business. You write alone but that's not what I mean. If you are a writer you are lonely. Well, I was. Desperately. At least that's how I used to feel.

I am sure there are writers out there who won't agree with that. And that's fine. Where I grew up, though it could have been anywhere in Scotland, you didn't make a big deal about being a writer and, if you did let it slip, the first question was always – always – "Have you been published?" or some variant thereof. And, as I hadn't been, my writing was relegated to either a hobby or a phase I would grow out of. Either way it was nothing to be taken seriously.


"So you are a
practicing poet?"
she asked,
and I felt unclean
and wanted my closet back.

23 March 1989

Once I started appearing in print the next question was, "So, how much did you get paid?" or a variant thereof. Somehow the £1.50 I got from Aberdeen University was hardly worth mentioning. If anything it was best not to mention it.

Twenty-odd years later I'd finally got round to that novel we're all supposed to have in us. My father, whose eyesight was starting to go by this point, said, "Read me that story you wrote." I said, "Dad, it's a novel," but it was never going to be anything other than "that story our Jimmy wrote." We never even got to the end, not because he died or anything (that would have been poetic) but one day he'd had heard enough.

I know that sounds sad (and it is) but this is not a cry for sympathy. I could've used a hug at the time but I survived. I was sure I wasn't alone in my aloneness. It's a big world, there was bound to be someone else out there wallowing in aloneness. I had to believe there were others out there scribbling away for dear life and not showing anyone or hardly anyone but they didn't know me and I didn't know them.

A few years later, just after my dad died, I logged onto the internet for the first time, typed "poetry" into a search engine and the rest is history. Writers think in words, we distil complex emotions to a few letters. I can reduce my feelings on the day I logged onto the internet, typed "poetry" and started to check out the links to a single word: home.

The US Democratic Party used the phrase 'You never had it so good' as a slogan in the 1952 US election campaign. In the UK, the expression is generally associated with Harold Macmillan's opinion as to the success of Britain's post-war economy; that was in 1957. Fifty years on can I just say to the young writers out there: You have never had it so good. Okay, getting published is so much harder than it was back in the fifties but at least you don't have to be alone. There are blogs and forums and online communities and you never have to be alone again. You can still choose to be alone but somehow it is so much easier knowing you're not.

It won't make the writing any easier mind.


So, we've reached the end of 2007. It's a benchmark. I know when I started writing this blog I had my doubts if I could keep churning out a quality blog week in week out but I seem to be doing okay. Let's see if I can keep it up.

The nice thing, and the thing I didn't anticipate, is that I'm not as alone in this venture as I expected. I knew there would be readers but I wasn't so prepared for relationships. There you go. So, to all my unexpected friends I wish you a happy New Year when it comes and I'll see you on the other side.

Saturday 29 December 2007

Making Sense

Poet Hound recently posted a blog about using dialogue in poetry to which I added a comment as I am wont. Anyway, the bottom line is I cited one of my own poems but, because the poem is centre-justified and I couldn’t post the poem formatted properly, here it is:


What do you see in the ink-blot?

Just sadness.

But sadness has no shape.

Yes it does. It has that shape.

Can't you see the butterfly?

Perhaps, but it's a very sad butterfly;

I can tell these things.

31 May 1998

You can read her original blog entry here. As you can tell from my site's logo I've always been fascinated by the Rorschach inkblot test.

Thursday 27 December 2007

The Cusp of Something

I don't read much contemporary literature, there are too many books that have stood the test of time that I haven't read and I frankly prefer my authors dead or dying, but every now and then one or two get through. Last year there were two, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Jai Clare's The Cusp of Something, two quite different animals. I think enough has been said about the McEwan but Jai Clare doesn't have a publicity machine the size of a Chieftain Tank; she has an elastic band and a few friends behind her.

But let me first digress. In Waiting for Godot, one of the insults the pair sling at each other is "Crritic!" It's a difficult thing to sit down and review the work of another. A lot of damage can be done with a bad review as Beckett could testify to; reviews of his early works were rarely glowing. I mean, at the end of the day who the hell am I to say one piece of writing is better than another? I can say what I like and why I like it and leave you to make your own mind up. Why would I do this? Simply because no one has the time to read every book that comes out to make his own mind up about it. Critics, love 'em or loathe 'em, are necessary.

And if they publish a bad review are we not tempted to say, "Well, if you think you can do any better go on then?" Jai Claire is not only a writer; she has also tried her hand at criticism. She wrote that the stories contained within Best American Short Stories 2004 largely bored her:

They’re all very well done of course, but not only do they sound extremely similar in the overall ‘tradition’ to which they belong, but none of them have any POETRY in them. Of course all the sentences are smooth and extremely competent but they don’t SING, or dazzle or have any true rhythm. None of them are interested in capturing the cadences of the characters, the cadence of the situation, the cadence of the story as whole. They all read like sentences from essays. In fact, I have read more journalism with a greater feel for rhythm and poetry than these stories. It seems the writers are so concerned with delineating character and drowning us in mainly skippable details that they forget creation of atmosphere through words, that they forget to make their story sing with a rhythm of its own. - The Cusp of Something blogspot

I'm sure there would have been a few who read that review who thought, Put up or shut up, and now she has, put up that is. In November her first collection of short stories was released by Elastic Press.

A word first about the publisher:

Elastic Press is a small publishing house dedicated to showcasing the talents of previously published independent press writers. We produce small print run, high quality, single author short story anthologies in a variety of genres with the intention of raising the profile of writers who are looking to consolidate their reputations within the independent press and beyond.

I met Andrew Hook, the founder of the press, a few years back and was quite impressed with the impassioned young man, someone who was very keen to prove that the short story was far from dead. I was impressed enough to submit a couple of stories which were politely rejected. Shniff. His loss. Since then Elastic Press has scooped the BFS Best Anthology award for the three years running so he obviously has been doing something right. Anyway, enough about him.

The problem with having read so many books is that, when you are faced with a new author, it is impossible not to compare. Weighing one author to another is not saying that the newbie's work is necessarily derivative in any way but it is a good way to convey the flavour of their work.

It's like a wine. Let me illustrate:

The wine is of a straw yellow colour with a subtle shade of green. Its flavour is reminiscent of the leaves of wild strawberry and rounded off by the pleasant aroma of the acacia blossom.

Eh? I'm sure you've heard similar overblown descriptions. I have no appreciation for wine. It all takes pretty much the same to me – awful or next-to-awful; bubbles help a little but give me a raspberry milkshake any day over an overpriced Bordeaux.

Jai Clare's book is like one of those bottles of wine, though at £5.99 it certainly isn't overpriced. I want to describe her by referencing other writers. On first sip the Jeanette Winterson is unmistakeable (particularly her choice of geographic locations and mythological references), the opening of 'Delaney Wears a Hat' compares favourably with the vivid metaphorical opening to McIlvanney's Laidlaw and there is even some Nabokov in there ("Islands are like moments; sheer moments of joy in water. Tiny perfections lasting a finite time; situated in a particular space and occupying the ecstasy of the brain." From 'More Moments of Sheer Joy'). All three of these authors have their own way with metaphors and so does Jai Clare. There are flashes of poetry that would not look out of place in an Elizabeth Smart novel. And there is definitely a touch of the A L Kennedy there too. Kennedy's short story 'A Wrong Thing' (Indelible Acts) could slip easily between the sheets of The Cusp of Something and no one would think anything of it. Neither of these authors pussyfoots around sexual issues.

But she is not Smart, or Winterson or Nabokov or any of the other writers that will doubtless spring to mind when you read through these short stories; she has her own voice (or voices to be honest). There are stories about men, women and children; some are barely visible, pencil sketches if you like; others have depth, colour and character, a reality you might not expect a few words on a page to be able to convey. Not all make easy reading due to the subject matter (the rape at the end of 'Mad Angels', although not graphic, is disturbing), with others, it is her approach to the subject matter, refusing to spell everything out for her readers. None of her characters seems particularly satisfied with their lives, from the wealthy competitive cousins in 'Ramblista' to the island-(and-bed)-hopping woman in 'More Moments of Sheer Joy'. Some of the stories are set in foreign locations which accentuate the alienation these individuals feel. They are all looking for something, a lost city, love, validation or answers to questions they hardly know how to answer; in that respect she has a lot in common with A L Kennedy. Part of the blurb on the back of Kennedy's short story collection, Indelible Acts, reads:

The … stories … are variations on a theme of longing – the unassuageable human need for contact, for completion, for that most fugitive gift or all: reciprocal love. Their characters are thwarted, dashed, impassioned, each in their own way immolated by hope.

The author could easily be talking about characters from Jai Clare's book.

Her collection is variable, at least in style. The quality is not. The problem with the collection – and this is a problem all editors face when compiling a short story or poetry anthology – is finding stories that work together and, to be blunt, not all of these do. The dark story 'Shallow Shore' in particular, although a very good story, seems a little out of place; the setting for some reason evoked Beckett's radio plays Embers and Cascando and I found that flavoured my reading the story. Not her fault, mine, as if I'd been sucking on an extra strong mint before I took a slug of that wine we were talking about earlier.

Clare acknowledges her roots. In an interview in The Fix she talks about where her style of writing comes from.

[M]odernism turned the short story poetic-less plot based; novels could survive like this, but short fiction, which originated as a popular rather than elitist form, couldn’t survive this, and the average reader who enjoys a good literary novel finds the short form hard to digest, with no plot and characters you just get to know before you never see them again.

Her influences are manifold, including lyricists:

The Cure’s lyrics were an early influence in terms of writing outside the mainstream, using metaphor and emotion and power. But writers initially: Enid Blyton! I can never forget The Magic Faraway Tree and her version of the Greek myths – extremely important. I had a book beautifully illustrated of poetry for children, loved it (Jumblies! The Waggle Taggle Gypsies!) and stories about toadstool rings and other magical things. Then came the incomparable Alan Garner. The Owl Service is a masterpiece. Then later came D H Lawrence, Hardy, T S Eliot, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Milan Kundera, Deborah Levy, Jeanette Winterson, Anna Kavan, Jayne Ann Phillips, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Christopher Priest (everyone should read The Affirmation) I could go on! I am inspired by language and audacity. Pushing boundaries with a voice, cadences and musicality as well as ideas. -

Remember what she said earlier?

…all the sentences are smooth and extremely competent but they don’t SING, or dazzle or have any true rhythm.

Now read this and tell me it doesn't sing and dazzle:

Bubbles to the waterway, waterway to stream, to brook, brook races off rock, through fords to rivers, the river slow, wind-scurried, reed-filled, bird-heard, past boats and fields and marshes and lost tumble-down houses to vastness of sea widening to the horizon of sky.

It's from 'Memories of Sky' which you can read in full at SmokeLong Quarterly. For me it isn't the best story in her collection by a long chalk. For many that will be 'Bone on Bone', a love story where the narrator falls in love with a jazz pianist, which was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2004 by storySouth. I particularly enjoyed the two opening stories, 'Balloons' which tracks the breakdown of a relationship following a fatal ballooning accident (shades of Ian McEwan there) and 'Ramblista', that absorbing consideration of familial rivalry I mentioned earlier. I appreciated 'Saft' too because it was written in dialect and isn't like anything else in the book, besides you all know I have a soft spot for writers who attempt this, however it was a little too short for me, besides it reveals its origins as an exercise. That said, it was the only one of the very short stories which didn't read like a prose poem, a form I have yet to develop an appreciation for, and if Margaret Atwood can't win me over I'm not sure who will.

I could give this collection stars out of five but I'm not going to. At least not here. I wonder what Beckett would have said if I gave him 5 stars? I'm sure he'd think I was being overgenerous. People don't judge a bottle of wine, they savour it, they share it and they get squiffy on it. Aw, if you've got any taste, just buy the damn book.

Jai Clare was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, was brought up in a small village in Worcestershire but now lives in London. Her work has appeared in many places including London Magazine (UK), The Barcelona Review, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Night Train, The Wine Dark Sea (Australia), The Absinthe Literary Review, Literary Potpourri, In Posse Review, Bonfire (UK), The Paumanok Review, Buzzwords (UK) and Voyage Magazine (UK), amongst others.

Saturday 22 December 2007

The downs and really really downs of depression

I've been reading a bit about Depression. I don't really need any advice on the subject. I've been depressed for years. I can do it standing on one leg, but I don't usually feel like standing on one leg when I'm depressed. I've learned to live with it. I've learned to joke about it. I can't pretend I understand it but then my dad spent years trying to figure out what exactly triggered my asthma and all he ended up with was a long list of often contradictory entries.

Of course, finding out I was a depressive, the next obvious thing to do was become a writer. It's not compulsory, one can write when not depressed, but it does look good on the CV. The statistics speak for themselves. A study carried out by Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, showed that 38% of a group of eminent British writers and artists had been treated for a mood disorder of one kind or another; of these, 75% had had antidepressants or lithium prescribed, or had been hospitalised. I wonder if she's every ever thought to do a similar study of comedians?

The reasons are manifold; Ian Hocking wrote a good article back in 2006 which is worth a read. I certainly don't feel like listing all the symptoms here; it's depressing.

What I do have to say is that I don't think Depression is enough of a reason not to write. It can be for a bit, and when I'm very bad, all I'm fit for is to sit in front of a television screen and watch whatever follows the last thing I just watched. But that doesn’t last forever, usually only a few weeks. After that I'm still depressed but I can function. And that's as good a time as any to start writing. Let's face it, writing is easy. By that I mean the physical act of writing. A pencil and a scrap of paper and you're off. You don't have to go anywhere special, wear protective clothing, engage with people or risk embarrassment.

In a study of 1,005 prominent 20th century individuals from over 45 different professions, the University of Kentucky’s Arnold Ludwig found a slight but significant correlation between depression and level of creative achievement.

Interestingly, in the same article the opposite point of view is proposed by Cornell University’s Alice Isen, who argues that positive affect (good emotions to you and I) promotes creativity. I'm not saying that they can't, but when I look back on all my years of writing, there's little you could call happy. I'm often funny, but nothing you'd want to laugh out loud to. And even my love poetry, what little there is of it, is tinged with sadness.

Depression, though, is not all being down in the dumps. Far from it. There are highs and lows. Granted the highs are not exactly dizzying and the lows can be crippling but there is flux. Part of you wants to wallow. Part of you wants to get better. Ambivalence is a barrier that needs to be broken through but it is also apparently something that creative people can capitalise on. Have a look at Christina Ting Fong's study into mixed emotions and creativity here.

Creativity depends in large part on novelty, and because novelty is largely a function of cognitive variation, anything outwith the range of normal experience that increases variation is likely to increase the probability of creativity. That could be falling in love, losing your parents or getting made redundant from that job you hated so much. There are instances that will back up all three arguments above.

The question that I don't have a university professor to answer is whether writing causes negative affect or if negative affect is a causal factor in someone being a writer. I suspect it's both. I think that most writers are broken people, but let me tell you about those three years when I couldn't write; they were awful. I had jobs I enjoyed, plenty of friends and family around me, and a decent income. I had achieved everything I set out to do. I had my own home, a car, albeit one that broke down more than I liked, I had an attractive wife who loved me, and the respect of my friends and work colleagues. And I was "as unhappy as a fool with sense and no heart," to quote fellow depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky. Unhappiness is quite different from depression. I wasn't writing. As far as I was concerned the guy who had all this wasn't me.

Then we lost/gave up everything and began again from scratch. But I was writing. I was happy in my misery. I'm not saying I didn’t make some of the same mistakes this time; I've had jobs I've enjoyed but took up too much of my time; made friends with a lot of nice, if not exactly literary, people; found another wife that, for some strange reason, loves the hell out of me because I'm a writer, but I've never stopped writing.

I had a friend who once wrote a poem about what you get when you pull a carnation to pieces to see what makes it a flower. You might get your answer but where did the flower go? Understanding is a luxury. Most of us get by with plain ol' knowledge. I know I can write. Not understanding the hows and whys is nothing to get depressed about.


This may seem like an odd blog to post at this time of year but even in an un-depressed state, the holidays are stressful and often disappointing. We run ourselves ragged buying gifts, cooking, cleaning, decorating and entertaining. We often have to cope with relatives whom we rarely see, don't particularly enjoy spending time with and never seem to have anything to say to. And no matter how hard we try we can't seem to recapture the wonderment we felt as children waiting for Santa. If that's what's it's like for the rest of us, then what about those who have to contend with all of this on top of being depressed? When you are depressed, it's like Dante created this special circle of hell all for you. The thought of even attempting any of this holiday stuff while you're depressed is daunting beyond belief.

Have a read at what Zsuzsa Tóth has to say about Xmas and how it affects her at pigeon post it and spare a thought for the thousands out there just like her.

All said and done, I hope all of you get through the festive season in one piece and I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

I'm going to sit right down and write myself a letter

I have not written a letter in about twelve years and I can't remember the last time I wrote one by hand. Oh, I've rattled off notes to the electricity board and the local council but you could hardly call them letters. They're letters in the same way a limerick is an epic poem.

A while ago I read a blog about the poet Ted Hughes. The author was reviewing the recently published Letters of Ted Hughes. She writes:

Ted Hughes was an old-fashioned letter writer, perhaps one of the last of the breed, but he considered a hand-written letter as worthy of literary excellence as any poetry or prose for publication…

I have to say I feel a strong affinity with that statement. It is one of the things my wife has commented on, the fact that she gets to read my blogs before anyone else. She remembers the letters we used to exchange when we were first getting to know each other and misses them. We talk, of course but talking is not writing. It is an interactive experience. You're too busy working out what you're going to say next that, even with the best of intentions, you can't possibly give the speaker your full attention.

Now, of course, the world has e-mail and texting. Lucky world aren't you? Never has it been possible to transmit the written word to others with such ease, speed and immediacy and what do we do with it?


A letter is a considered thing, at least mine were, an opportunity to have my say and say it right, to choose my words carefully. Blogging is like that but I'm writing to a mostly anonymous audience. It's an open letter to the world. Hello, world, how's it hanging?

Now a letter on the other hand is a custom built communication with all the trimmings. It says more than words could say. Well, actually it says exactly what words can say but it's not (at least it shouldn’t be) any ol' words. The nice thing about words, the really, really nice thing, is that their meanings aren’t fixed, we can redefine them, we can imbue them with our own personalities, we can make them our own.

The problem with writing for you lot – yes, you world, sit up when I'm talking to you – is that for you to understand me I have to use universal metaphors. My wife and I have one: she's a Tracy. Okay, you're a bright bunch. Most of you will have worked out that one or other of us knew or knows someone called Tracy who has or had certain personality traits peculiar to herself but can you imagine the rigmarole we would have to go through for you to get exactly what that metaphor means to my wife and me? And if I use a Scotticism or a bit of Glaswegian slang I have to explain it most of the time. I can’t trust the context to help me out there.

I can be me in a letter. I don’t get to be me nearly enough these days.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Just another fence thrown round the field

I was trying to remember the first book of poetry I bought. I don't have it anymore but it was a collection by the Glasgow poet, Tom Leonard. I bought it because it contained a lengthy poem with an equally lengthy title, 'A priest came on at Merkland Street: a very thoughtful poem, being a canonical penance for sufferers of psychosomatic asthma' (and being an asthma sufferer I was curious), but it really wasn't that particular poem that caught my interest, rather it was a set of poems called 'Six Glasgow Poems'.

What you have to remember is the poetry I had been exposed to up until this point. We'd probably just finished the British War Poets, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke (Owen was a definite early influence) and were about to get introduced to Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, who, probably for that reason, I have always paired-up in my mind even though they were very different people and poets. I had never read or heard read anything that could be described as radical. And then I discovered this:


wirraw init thigithir missyz
geezyir kross

I had never read anything like it. If I was to anglify it then it would read something like:


We're all in it together, missus.
Give me your cross.

(Glaswegians often use "us" to refer to themselves as an individual, a bit like the Royal "we", e.g. We are not amused.)

I imagine my reaction would have been analogous to people ten years earlier hearing the Beatles singing without affecting quasi-American accents. It was a defiant act. And so was this.

What gets me is that, another ten years down the line, when Leonard released his collection Intimate Voices: Writing 1965-1983 which shared the Scottish Book of the Year Award in 1984, it was at the same time banned from Scottish Central Region school libraries. Go figure. Nowadays his poem 'The Six O'Clock News' is required reading for at GCSE level. I'm sure the irony would not be lost on him.

In his introduction to Radical Renfrew Leonard defines a "real" poem:

  1. A "real" poem is one that an English teacher would approve for use in an English class.
  2. A "real" poem requires some explanation and guidance as to interpretation, by an English teacher.
  3. The best poems come to be set in the exams.
  4. The people best able to pass these exams will be the people best able to understand and to write poetry.

He follows this with: "The roots of all this pernicious nonsense about what a poem isn't and what it is can be traced back to the nineteenth century invention of Literature as a 'subject' in schools."

I know exactly where he is coming from. Every poem I had ever seen, nursery rhymes excepted, had needed to be explained to me. We got the poem and we got notes to go with the poem because we were incapable of getting it on our own. We were expected to be as thick as shit. It wasn't the teachers' fault per se. Our teachers fell into the rut of believing that nyaffs like us were nigh on incapable of comprehending the subtleties of English poetry without a guide and, lazy wee buggers that we all were, we were content to be hauled by our snotty wee noses towards whatever meanings the teachers decided were the right ones for us. We were following the natural law of the school system as it was in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies.

I fully accept that the education system has to draw lines. There is clearly some literature that shouldn't be put before impressionable young minds but, using the very same logic, because their minds are impressionable, that is the very time to open them to all sorts of possibilities. This doesn’t apply just to poetry. I studied Music and, granted we covered everything from Gregorian chant right through to Webern (I don't think we reached the minimalists) but what about all the rest?

The world is shrinking. It's far from speaking with one voice but the colours are merging, subtle shades are becoming unfashionable. Is that a bad thing? I think it is. Truth comes in all shades. This is the whole point of 'The Six O'Clock News'. Even today, but especially back then, the news was read in Standard English with a calm, reserved, educated accent. The BBC even had its radio announcers wear suits despite the fact the audience couldn't see them. It was a deliberate ploy by the company to establish them as bastions of the truth. Rubbish! To return to a musical example for a moment, what was it Bob Dylan wrote (and Jimi Hendrix sang), "All I’ve got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth"?

I'll leave you with the full text of the poem, jist incase inuvyu lazi buggrs oot ther cudnebe arsed lukin up thi linknat (No, that's not me be being offensive, that's how we talk here, and that’s the truth).


this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.

Friday 14 December 2007

Random facts in context

I did the 10-20-30-40-50 meme a while ago because it interested me. No one tagged me or anything; in fact I was quite unaware that this was a game people play on the Web. I'm not sure that a collection of random facts is what Dawkins had in mind when he coined the expression but I'm willing to play along. In case anyone wonders, you have Terry Heath to blame/thank for this post and, in accordance with the instructions provided, I will tag the 5 sites listed at the end of this post.

Rules for this meme

Link to the person who tagged you, post the rules and five facts (some random, some weird) on your blog. Tag five people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Random Fact #1

I was dropped on my head as a child.

Actually not strictly true but it makes a decent headline. As an infant I never moved. I wasn't interested in anything but sleep which is amusing considering I'm writing this at 3:30 in the morning because I'm unable to sleep. Perhaps I slept too much back then. Who knows? Anyway for some reason my mother saw fit to leave me asleep on the kitchen table. She turned her back and there I was on the floor, uninjured but still sound asleep.

Random Fact #2

I own 62 Tangerine Dream albums.

This started as a bit of a challenge back in the early eighties. The first album I bought was the soundtrack to Thief and then I began working my way through the classic albums, Phaedra, Tangram, Stratosfear, Cyclone. The most unusual one I picked up at a clearance sale, a soundtrack of Kathleen Turner reading the children's story Rumplestitskin over a soundscape by the band. The B side has just the music. I am nowhere near having a complete set and have pretty much given up.

Random Fact #3

I don't like whisky.

I know it's our national tipple but I've never managed to acquire a taste for it. I've tried, various brands including single malts, but I simply don't like the taste. I'm not much of a drinker, full stop, but strangely enough I'm partial to a wee Glayva (a whisky liqueur) with a lot of ginger ale in it every once in a while. But I don't like Drambuie. And for those out there, who aren't sure: Scotch is the drink, Scots or Scottish is the nationality.

Random Fact #4

My favourite comic book artist is Bill Sienkiewicz.

This man is a fabulous artist. If anyone thinks comics are for kids they should have a look at this man's work; his covers are literally works of art. I first became aware of him when he started doing the covers to Moon Knight, the original run. The covers were all black and white, with the odd touch of red. Very, very striking work. I gave away my copy of his graphic novel Stray Toasters to a starving artist in Aberdeen hoping to inspire him; his work was not dissimilar.

Random Fact #5

I once bought a bottle of blue lemonade in Fraserburgh.

I once had a temp job as a van driver which took me all over Scotland and the north of England. Fraserburgh is on the nose of Scotland (just look at the map) and I had to spend the night in a B&B. It was a quaint place and the accent is wonderful. I'd make up any excuse to talk to one of the locals so I could hear them speak. Theirs is exactly the kind of shortbread-tin-accent foreigners affect when they're playing a Scot, well something approximating it. Anyway, before I left in the morning I called into a newsagent’s where I noticed a blue bottle, which I asked about and discovered was produced locally. It tasted exactly like the lemonade I'd drunk all my life, but it was blue.

People Tagged

Carrie Berry (Echo on)
Dave King (Pics and Poems)
Joanna Young (Confident Writing)
Jerry Smith (GC's Blog)
Sherry Pasquarello (After the Bridge)

Wednesday 12 December 2007

If a film had a daemon would it be a bookworm?

A film adaptation has a lot in common with a book review. It is the scriptwriter's take on the book; one man's opinion. Okay, that's a gross simplification perhaps, but bear with me. Actually we'll get round to the bear later.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four ten years before I saw the film starring John Hurt and it was a few years later I saw the BBC adaptation starring Peter Cushing. The film and the TV drama were very different and yet both were faithful to the book. I was genuinely puzzled and read the book again for, I think, the third time.

I was lucky to see the TV version. The play was adapted by Nigel Neale (best known for his Quatermass series) and the first broadcast caused a furore; questions were even asked in the House about the suitability of such strong material for television. Furious watchdogs campaigned for a second performance planned for a few days later to be cancelled. The BBC's Head of Drama, Michael Barry, refused to concede, and that second live performance was recorded. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's been said we live in a post-literary world. Since the bulk of the information on the internet comes in words, albeit sometimes a strangled version of English, I could dispute that, but I can't argue with the fact that people are reading less books than they used to. I read less books than I used to, but I still watch a bucket load of films. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so. Admittedly it's rare that I'll watch a film and then go looking to read the book from which it was adapted, however, if I've enjoyed a particular book, I'm wide open to watching an adaptation of it, if only so I can nitpick over how they should have done it.

At the end of the day a film is a collaborative process no matter how firmly any director clings to the reins, whereas reading is the most solitary of occupations. For example, in my first novel I have a clear picture in my head of the character of Truth. It's a young Paul Nicholas – more Just Good Friends, less Cousin Kevin from Tommy. My wife can't see past Eric Idle in the role purely because I describe his entry as "more like a character from a Monty Python sketch than the angel of death"; since both actors are now far too old to play the part, God alone knows who they would cast if the damn thing ever got filmed. Steve Punt's probably in with a shout.

When I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest I had no real picture in my head of Randall P McMurphy in my head. After the film I couldn't ever see anyone else in the role, he so made it his own. A while ago my daughter went to see Christian Slater play the part on the stage and she said he was so convincing in the part and I can imagine that. The novel was originally dramatised on Broadway beginning in 1963 with Kirk Douglas starring as McMurphy and Gene Wilder as the stuttering Billy Bibbit. That I would liked to have seen.

The book is very different from the film, so much of the book taking place in the head of the 6' 8" tall, 'mute' native American, Chief Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic, who describes hallucinatory images of an all-powerful, all-seeing bureaucratic 'harvesting machine' designed to foster complete social integration – a combine, that would squelch all individuality and create a compliant society (both within the hospital and in the wider society). Kesey was so incensed by the change in the perspective of the story-telling (away from Chief Bromden's first-person perspective) and other changes in the script that he sued the producers.)

The thing Kesey perhaps forgot is that no sooner has his book landed in the hands of a reader, they will start to interpret or misinterpret his characters, they will cast the characters as they see fit and provide them with accents that aren't quite right, or anywhere near right, and there isn't a damn thing he can do about it. Most film-makers, though, have a degree of integrity. They want to bring "their vision" of the book to the masses and that is all it is, what one man sees in another man's work. Unless you're Quentin Tarantino who not only renamed the airline stewardess at the centre of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch but changed her ethnicity too when he cast legendary blaxploitation star Pam Grier in his adaptation, Jackie Brown.

The last film adaptation I saw was A Scanner Darkly, a book I have read many times and a personal favourite. I went fully expecting to be bitterly disappointed, after all what could possibly live up to my expectations? The thing is I wasn't disappointed, the very opposite. I had always had some problems visualising the world in the book, especially the scramble suits. Now that problem has been solved. It wasn't a perfect film, the end was rushed and it definitely helped to have read the book first but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

One of my favourite films is Blade Runner, an adaptation of another of Philip K Dick's novels, Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep? but the novel is not a favourite. This time I saw the film first and Ridley Scott's interpretation of the material is stunning.

Dick worked closely with the Blade Runner producers until his untimely passing in March 1982. He had this to say about the film:

The purpose of this story as I saw it was that in his job of hunting and killing these replicants, Deckard becomes progressively dehumanized. At the same time, the replicants are being perceived as becoming more human. Finally, Deckard must question what he is doing, and really what is the essential difference between him and them? And, to take it one step further, who is he if there is no real difference?

Seeing Rutger Hauer as Batty just scared me to death, because it was exactly as I had pictured Batty, but more so. I could have picked Sean Young out of a hundred different women as Rachael. She has that look.

Of course Harrison Ford is more like Rick Deckard than I could have even imagined. I mean it is just incredible. It was simply eerie when I first saw the stills of Harrison Ford. I was looking at some stills from the movie and I thought, this character, Deckard, really exists. There was a time that he did not exist; now he actually exists. But he is not the result of any one individual's conception or effort. He is to a very large extent, Harrison Ford's efforts. And there is actually, in some eerie way, a genuine, real, authentic Deckard now.

Friends of mine who looked at the photographs, who read the novel, said, 'Do you realize that if you had not written that book, Harrison Ford would not be wearing that tie, he would not be wearing those shoes?' And I said, 'That is true. But what is more exciting is that if Harrison Ford had not played that role, Deckard would never become an actual person.' Ford radiates this tremendous reality when you see him. And seeing him as a character I created is a stunning and almost supernatural experience to me.

I'm not saying I would never have got round to Philip K Dick without seeing Blade Runner but it brought me there sooner. I own about a dozen and I've read a dozen more the majority of which were never made into novels and probably never will. I see that as a good thing. The reason that the source material isn't as good as the film is that the film has developed the material in the book. Dick was notorious for churning out material at breakneck speed. One can only imagine if, after seeing the film, he had written a novelisation of it. I wonder if that's ever been done. Answers on a postcard, please to …

So, what am I saying? The bottom line is that I think there are too many people out there who want to make issues about things. So Dick liked what they did with his book and Kesey didn't. The books are still there and if you didn't want your book turned into a multi-million pound extravaganza don't sign away the ruddy film rights.

Right now the latest adaptation is The Golden Compass and the reviews have not been that kind. Writer-director Chris Weitz has been swamped by the task of condensing a densely imaginative 430-page book. Something had to be left out and some would argue – not unconvincingly – that he chose to leave out meaning in favour of action. But it is what it is. The kids will be entertained. And if their parents have any sense they'll buy them the book for Xmas in favour of the plush 18" electronic talking bear.

Sunday 9 December 2007

The perfect fork

My parents used to get annoyed with me as a child for leaving food on my plate. I was reminded – and not infrequently – of those starving children in Africa. It didn't stop me not liking Brussels sprouts though. Or cabbage. Or spinach.

I've just read through Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which she recalls her childhood in Africa and laments that children in Zimbabwe are starving for knowledge. I could understand hungering for food when I was a kid, not that I ever did, but hungering for knowledge? If I wanted to know something I just asked my dad.

There were books in the house where I grew up, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, self-help books, but no fiction apart from children's storybooks, mainly by Enid Blyton who probably deserves a whole blog to herself one day. It was not my parents' fault. My mother always told us how her sister was the dux of the school whereas she was the dunce; my father had been the school bully and fared no better. After though he set out to educate himself and bought books appropriate to his line of business; he got his City & Guilds and then looked for other things to learn. Books were tools as far as he was concerned, designed to do a job, like a fork, a means to an end; he couldn't see the point in reading things other people had just made up. I wasn't exactly forbidden to read fiction, you must understand, but I was never encouraged.

I've tried to put myself in the shoes (perhaps an inappropriate choice of metaphor there) of these Zimbabweans. It's hard. But I do get the desire to make the world a little better for our children. Before my daughter was born she already had 100 books ready and waiting for her, including all of the Enid Blyton retellings of the Brer Rabbit stories. I'm glad to report she has grown up into a voracious reader and I never tire buying her new books despite their almost prohibitive cost.

This is perhaps where technology can come to the rescue. If someone can invent a clockwork radio they can invent a clockwork e-book reader. I know there are organisations like Computer Aid International that find homes for all the perfectly good PCs we in the West dispose of because they're out of date. There is also something called the Simputer specifically designed for the third world.

A single PC can hold hundreds of books; with an internet connection that becomes thousands. We in the developed countries may be a bit sniffy about devices like Amazon's Kindle but I doubt the Africans would have the same attitude. I can't see them keeping it in the box in case it gets dirty. None of the above are perfect solutions but, as I've heard so often, we don't live in a perfect world as if that's reason enough not to try and improve things.

There is absolute perfection (e.g. a man who never sins) and relative perfection (e.g. a fork). A fork is perfect for the job for which it is intended. It's not very good for hammering in nails. I wonder how perfect Lessing's speech was. She tells a sad tale very well – she should be able to, they've just awarded her the ruddy Nobel Prize for Literature – but will it change anything? Will this blog? Maybe words don't quite have the power the Zimbabweans think they do.

Friday 7 December 2007

Best Scottish Poems of 2007

Poetry Online's entries for the Best Scottish Poems of 2007 are now up and you should have a wee shuftie as we say here. What I particularly like about the entries is that they contain comments from the poets and the editors, some quite lengthy.

If you check out no other please have a read at On My Father's Refusal to Renew his Subscription to The Beijing Review by Willy Maley.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The need to be vague

If there is one thing that language is good at, it’s being vague. People try and say what they mean but it’s never that easy. The real question is: How important is it? It depends what you’re writing. If it’s a technical manual then precision and clarity are a given. But what about fiction?

One of the most articulate and literate writers of the 20th century was Samuel Beckett. His command of English was frightening and he was no slouch in other languages such as French, German and Italian. On holiday once he sat and read an Agatha Christie thriller in Portuguese for the practice.

His early work is riddled with unusual, often archaic, expressions and yet, as he grew older, rather than refine his use of language to ensure the reader was presented with exactly the right word for the job, he deliberately simplified his style which you would think would add to his works' clarity but then he goes one step further, he starts to use that eraser I spoke about a while back and he rubs out all the specifics. This process is known as 'vaguening'. The question that needs to be answered is: Why?

Think of a cat. Have you thought of one? I have. Is it ginger, black, white, a Siamese perhaps? It doesn't matter if you're a dog person or a cat person you will still have an image in your head so when you read, The cat came into the room, do you see my mum's cat Tigger? No. And why would you? How much information would I have to add to that simple sentence for you to see what I see? Perhaps you think he was a ginger cat, because of the name, perhaps an allusion to Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh books. Nope. Tigger was a tabby. That's not him in the picture though. That's actually another cat called Tigger. Everyone will see a different cat enter a different room and in a different way. An ailurophobe would find the creature menacing if not downright terrifying. I would get up and try and pet the thing.

In early drafts of his play, Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett includes a number of details which never made it to the final play. The year in which the play is set was originally 1986, amended to '1985' and then 'the nineteen-eighties' until finally all he says is that it is set in the future all of which is irrelevant to the viewer. Only someone with the text of the play would know that. It could be any year. Only the use of an old reel-to-reel recorder dates the piece at all. Likewise the fact that Krapp was a Dubliner is excised. The pub is emptied of people as is the park. His red nose vanishes and those ridiculous oversized white shoes. Originally Beckett had Krapp sing an old hymn, Now the Day is Over, but cut this from later performances as "too clumsily explicit."

With each draft, and then later as director, Beckett moves further and further away from stating towards implication and suggestion. Krapp become Everyman, a one-size-fits-all template for humanity. Everyone is born and everyone dies. Not everyone is Krapp – very few come anywhere near – but Krapp laments a life that anyone could avoid having lived.

In his later works even names go out of the window. We see grey men sitting in rooms staring at walls, we watch a nameless woman rocking herself to death and a mouth – just a mouth – jabbering in the dark at such a ferocious speed that it is impossible on first hearing to do anything other than react emotionally to the onslaught of words. And all of this from a grand master of the English language.

People like puzzles. Why are shows like Lost so popular? Simple because they demand that their viewers do much of the work. Okay, at the end, though hopefully not in an X-Files-type finale, everything will be revealed just so you can make sure you did figure it all out but if they didn't – anyone remember The Prisoner? – then years later there will be people still trying to make it make sense. There's a bestseller still kicking around called The Bible that's kept readers guessing for years.

Does that make a work great? In itself, no. But it'll pretty much guarantee you an audience. I've seen five different versions of Krapp's Last Tape. I have the text and two DVDs of the play. I've studied it in depth and written articles about it and still, if there was a new version available to me, I'd want to see it to see if I'd missed anything. You can do that with plays. A pity you can't do that with books. I wouldn’t say no to a rewrite of Finnegan's Wake, maybe by Douglas Coupland or better still Douglas Adams if he was still about.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Thinking outside the box

Question: Would you rather see a child read a comic than not read? I'd be disappointed with anyone who suggested the latter. I'd rather see them reading the back of a milk carton than not read.

Not everyone out there is like you or I. Not everyone gets excited by words like we do. Not everyone cares about reading. Books are for steadying table legs. That's about the only way they'll ever change the world.

I'm not going to debate whether books are a luxury or a necessity. Certainly Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs doesn't list reading amongst its baseline physiological needs. But for an organism to develop, to be all it can be, its cognitive and aesthetic needs must be satisfied. And that's where comics come in. Let me tell you about The Comic Book Project:

The Comic Book Project is an arts-based literacy and learning initiative hosted by Teachers College, Columbia University with materials published by Dark Horse Comics.

The goal of the project is to help children forge alternative pathways to literacy by writing, designing, and producing original comic books.

The Comic Book Project puts children in the role of creators, rather than merely receivers of information. Children write and draw about their personal experiences and interests, thereby engaging them in the learning process and motivating them to succeed in school, after school, and in life.

There used to be a time when graphic storytelling was pooh-poohed but comics have changed a lot since I started reading them back in the sixties. If someone had suggested writing a graphic novel (not that the term existed back then) dealing with the Holocaust and featuring mice I shudder to think what the reaction would have been. And yet Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale does exactly that. It recounts the struggle of Spiegelman's father to survive the Holocaust as a Polish Jew. In 1992 it won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award. A comic won a Pulitzer.

Maybe one day a blog will win a Pulitzer.

People are always quick to point out the limits of a particular medium: Oh, you can't do that. It was never designed to do that. Besides, no one will get it.

There are crap comics out there but there are crap novels too. The term "novel" is one of those terms, like "symphony", that carries a certain weight. People who write novels or symphonies are serious contenders. And the less said about comics and blogs the better.

Writing is all about communication. I want what I'm writing to matter. If sticking three chords under it will help then fine. If adding pictures in four colours to it helps then fine. If converting it to ones and zeroes helps then fine.

I think The Comic Book Project is an important and worthwhile venture. Getting kids to read comics is one thing, a good thing, but taking it to the next level is vital. The novelist Neil Gaiman gained a large audience with his comic books before concentrating on novels and that audience went with him.

Actually a comic book script is every bit as complicated as a film script. Have a look at some of the examples at The Comic Book Script Archive in particular the very detailed example from Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

When I was young all the action in my comics took place inside the panels. Later, as artists started to get bolder, the characters would break out of these boxes. It's a good metaphor for what comics have done, they've broken the mould and become more than anyone could ever have imagined they could be.

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