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

Saturday 28 June 2008

Movie meme

I don't often drift off topic. It was always my aim to keep this as a literary blog but when I read Ken Armstrong's recent post about movies I found myself compelled to compile my own list. Movies have always been an enormous influence on me as a writer and I don't think this is a bad thing. I could list the writers who have influenced my own work but I could also list the directors. Woody Allen has affected me every bit as much a Keith Waterhouse.

The first thing I found was that it's next to impossible was to pick one of anything. There are exceptions, I've never changed my favourite film of all time in years and there are films that never disappear from my top ten although their rankings vary from week to week.

The thing I hate about lists like this is that we tend to pick from what we have seen most recently and forget about some of the truly great films we've seen in the past. So I decided not to rush at answering any of the questions.

Oh, and I'm not passing this on either.

1) Name one movie that made you laugh:

The one I remember clearest was actually a documentary strangely enough. I saw it in the smallest cinema I've ever been in which was in Wishaw. There were about four rows of seats and they went up at about a 60° angle. Steep! The film was Big Banana Feet, a documentary about Billy Connolly released in 1976. I laughed myself silly. So bad I brought on a severe asthma attack. Connolly is just one of those guys like Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper who could read the phone book and it would be funny.

Here's a clip from the film (I had to get my inhaler after watching this):

As far as "real" films go, I'd probably have to give the title of funniest film to Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) – it's certainly entertains me every time I catch it and I never get tired of seeing it. I watch it with a very childish delight: "Do it again! Do it again!"

2) Name one movie that made you cry:

There really is only one contender in this category: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). I watched it on my own. I was underage but I've always looked older than I really am. The ending when the Chief discovers McMuphy has been lobotomised was what got me, that followed by his heroic escape. It was on TV a wee while back and I still found myself tearing up and I must have seen it a good half-dozen times. This is also one of those book adaptations which actually works. It's different to the book but it still works.

3) Name one movie you loved when you were a child:

I was going to say The Aristocats (1970) because I assumed it would have to be a Disney film – but the fact is I saw Planet of the Apes in 1968 and there is no comparison. I had no clue it was going to end the way it did. I think that was the first time the power of the cinema really hit me. The end of Burton's "reimagining" certainly was a contender for the biggest disappointment I've had watching a film I can tell you.

4) Name one movie you've seen more than once:

There are so many. Blade Runner (1982) certainly is the top of the science fiction films though I've yet to get the latest release but I bet I've seen Woody Allen's Play it Again Sam (1972) more times. I probably know the dialogue to both films by heart.

5) One movie you loved, but were embarrassed to admit it:

I was going to offer up Love Actually (2003) actually. I've even seen all the DVD extras and everything. But then I remembered E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) which I saw in a huge cinema in Edinburgh. You could probably have fitted a couple of hundred wee Wishaw cinemas in it. I went on my own and didn't cry. It wasn't something I went into work the next day and wanted to get all enthusiastic about over the water cooler mind.

6) One movie you hated:

I couldn't think of a film I've walked out of. My sister walked out of one and I followed (I think it might have been The Hitcher (1986)) but if I've paid good money then I'm mean enough to want my money's worth. I did turn off The Blair Witch Project (1999) when it was on TV purely because of the camerawork but when it comes to hating a film, I'd like to nominate the Coen brothers' diabolical remake of The Ladykillers (2004). I'm not overly fond of any of their work but my wife loves them.

7) Name one movie that scared you:

I saw two films in 1978, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Sentinel (1977) within about a week of each other and have never been able to separate them in my head. Both of these films gave me nightmares – literally – for months and I stayed clear of horror movies for a very long time afterwards. I've been startled by movies. I jumped out of my seat during a showing of Jaws (1975) but I wasn't scared … I wasn't … I really wasn't.

8) Name one movie that bored you:

This was the hardest category for me. I guess I don't bore easily. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) wasn't so much boring as just not funny. We turned it off after about thirty minutes. Eraserhead (1977) was simply bitterly disappointing. I had waited years to see it and it was awful. I've never made it through The Blues Brothers (1980) and I've tried three times. I think though I'll plump for Zardoz (1974) which truly dragged. So much navel gazing! And Sean Connery, wearing a red Borat-style mankini, knee-high leather boots, pony tail and Zapata moustache did nothing for me I'm happy to report.

9) Name one movie that made you happy:

I'm not really a very happy person. Not effusive. So, I had to think for a while what to put here. There are plenty of films I've enjoyed. I discovered Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) before all our friends and had film nights introducing them to this wonderful little film. But I wouldn't say it made me happy. The one that comes at the top of my list is one I saw only a couple of weeks ago, a film I doubt any of you will have heard of, Quiet City (2007). It's the simplest of films, obviously made on a tiny budget ($2000) and it's just lovely. A boy and a girl run into each other in New York, strike up a friendship and wander around the city for a couple for days. That's it. There's no real story, just a slice of life, but it's not often I sit watching a film with a fixed smile on my face. A similar, but far more polished, film would be Lost in Translation (2003) which I also thought was beautiful in its understatement.

Here's the trailer to Quiet City:

10) Name one movie that made you miserable:

There have been plenty of films that have left me wondering what the hell it was all about but there haven’t been many that have left me feeling miserable at the end. Tuesdays with Morrie (1999) is way up there but In the Bedroom (2001) was probably one of the unhappiest films I've ever seen, watching a father and mother fall to pieces after the death of their son.

I pretty much loathed Man Thing (2005) because I loved the comic so much and, although the realisation of the creature was decent enough (when it finally arrived), the rest of the film was simply appalling. Marvel should be ashamed of themselves. Even the horrendous Swamp Thing (1982) was better. At least it had Adrienne Barbeau in it.

11) Name one movie you thought would be great, but it wasn’t:

There were so many choices here. I had read every scrap of information that was available years before Tim Burton's Batman (1989) hit the screen so there was no way I wasn't going to be disappointed – I'd built myself up for it. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was an awful let down but I think the award has to go to Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). I know the TV series was variable, anything between pure dribble and comic genius, but, considering the time they had to prepare the film script, I'm sure they could've done better.

12) Name one movie you weren't brave enough to see:

Top of the list: The Exorcist (1973). I've never seen it. I have no desire to see it. I read the book at school – God alone knows who leant me a copy – but there was such a cloud that followed the film that I could never bring myself to get it out on video. I had no problems with A Clockwork Orange (1971) when it became available but not The Exorcist. One other springs to mind, though for different reasons, The Cable Guy (1996) – the premise of the film just creeps me out.

13) Name one movie character you've fallen in love with:

There are a number of actresses who I've been smitten by. In the sixties, Debbie Reynolds; Jodie Foster in the seventies; Sigourney Weaver in the eighties and Christina Ricci in the noughties but I find myself hard pushed to name a character in a movie. If pushed, I think I'd opt for 'Rebecca' in Ghost World (2001) played by Scarlett Johansson although 'Charlotte' in Lost in Translation (2003) (coincidentally also Ms. Johansson) would be a fair trade. You have no idea how many people think that's a boring movie.

14) Name one pointless remake:

This was not on the original list but I added it. There are so many choices and they just keep coming. Where do I start? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)? Fun With Dick And Jane (2005)? Halloween (2007)? I feel sorry for all the scriptwriters out their trying to pitch something new. I've already listed The Ladykillers but I think the worst examples I can think of are: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007). What was so wrong with Walter Wanger's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) that it needed to be remade? And why do they keep getting it so wrong?

15) Name your favourite movie of all time:

Also not on the original list. This really follows on from the last question. For years my favourite film has been François Truffaut's L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (1977). I haven't seen the remake but I could just imagine what damage Blake Edwards and Burt Reynolds could do. I've never seen their version of The Man Who Loved Women (1983) and I never will. Never. Not ever. No way, Pedro.


Friday 27 June 2008

Andrew Philip: A Sampler

A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow, a man without his wife a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died? – P F Thomése

I've finally got myself a decent copy of Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. I have an old clapped out tape lying around somewhere but it's been years since I gave it a listen. I have several CDs by his brother Roger I tend to listen to more, purely because my first port of call when I'm looking for some music to listen to is my bookcase full of CDs rather than my bookcase full of tapes. Bit by bit I'm replacing the tapes that I've worn out but it's a time-consuming task.

Eno's album is beautiful. Just take a break and listen to 'An Ending (Ascent)' here. It lasts 4 minutes 11 seconds. The images in the video, although nothing to do with the moon flight, are more appropriate to what I'm going to be going on about.

Wasn't that lovely? Anyway, this isn't a post about music. I will break down and write one someday but not today I don't think. What I wanted to write about today is a guy called Andrew Philip. The Scottish publisher, HappenStance, has just brought out a sampler of this guy's work having previously published his chapbook Tonguefire which is now out of print. So, having enjoyed his blog for some months, I thought I'd give his sampler a go. Very adventurous of me but it was only £2.50 and what can you buy for £2.50 these days? Actually quite a lot if you shop wisely but that's not the point. I bought the damn thing. Right? Signed and everything it was.

The sampler includes the long poem 'Tonguefire Night' from his previous chapbook as well as a small group of poems about the poet's son who died shortly after birth. This didn't put me off. I'd recently read the Dutch author P F Thomése's book, Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss about his daughter who died in infancy which I'd … enjoyed is not really the right word, ensomethinged, en-something-like-sadden-ed? Isn't English so awkward sometimes? I'd empathised with the writer's plight. That doesn't sound right. This is why we need poetry.

But sometime even the poetry isn't enough. Andrew Philip's sampler is a collection of poems by a man trying to make sense our of something that will never make sense, trying to imbue words with meanings they were never intended to hold and, where that fails, creating new words to try and get his point across.

The first thing I should mention is that it feels nice in your hands. It's printed on decent quality paper and the pages are as thick as the cover so, for something so thin, it has an unexpected and welcome solidity.

(Okay, an aside: I hate long poetry. I get bored with it; so much of it goes on and on and on and I lose what little patience I have. Anything longer than a page and I probably won't even look at it. I accept this is pretty narrow-minded of me but I've never been able to get over it with a couple of exceptions: 'Tam o'Shanter' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', but they're just stories that happen to rhyme as far as I'm concerned. I've tried but I just start nodding off. Literally!)

So, I was worried about the opening poem but I thought I'd give it a go and lo and behold is it not really six little poems all masquerading as a long poem? At least that's how I coped with it. And they told a story too. Perfect. I could handle that. All the others were of a manageable size.

There are seven poems in the collection but because of the way the first one is laid out it feels like more. I'd like to say a bit about each of them.

'Tonguefire Night'

In this poem we are introduced to the character of MacAdam. 'Mac' or 'Mc' in Scots Gaelic means 'son of'. This reminded me of the Hebrew 'ben 'adam' which means 'son of man' so, from the off, I wondered about the identity of the man here especially when the poem opens with:

MacAdam rakes up the tongues
of men, women and a handful

of angels from where they've fallen

Was this going to be a religious poem? Reading on this didn't look like the case so I suspect that the name was picked to identify MacAdam as Everyman, just a guy who happens to be raking up his leaves.

The first thing that might trip up a reader is the word 'cowps' which is a Scottish expression for 'tips'. It can be a noun too: a coup is a rubbish tip. This is the first of a handful of Scottish words that appear in this poem but the context makes their definition fairly obvious.

Philip is also not beyond inventing new words where English and Scots is not enough for him, e.g. 'speechgifted' and 'mouthwaters'. Normally I don't have much time for these neologisms but I didn't find his use of them intrusive or unnatural. He just uses a broader pallet than most of us.

What happens to this Everyman is that he hears a 'bairn' (a baby) cry and, on investigating comes across 'a baby made of glass'. Is this a parable, an allegory or … well, poetry?


This is a poem in memoriam Aiden Michael Philip. I wondered about the definition but since 'the universe' gets a mention I went to look it up:

…a hypothetical region in space in which gravitational forces cause matter to be infinitely compressed and space and time to become infinitely distorted…

I can't imagine a more suitable image for a child prematurely taken. I love the image of a child as a 'little hoard of brightness'.


This is a simple poem that describes a father in parts, his arms, his hands, his ears, his chest. It is a straightforward and effective portrayal of the way a child sees its father but the most beautiful line is

this is the man you fathered

which is a total reversal of the meaning of the verb. I could see Dylan Thomas coming out with a line like that.


This is an odd little poem, splattered all over the page. No, not 'splattered' – exploded! It begins with this image:

This quartered world
                                                   stunned into mourning
                    for itself

which makes me think about how someone might feel after watching an explosion, especially as explosion that involved someone they loved, where there is nothing left but a crater and you find yourself frozen in the moment.


The web page of the The Saxifrage Society describes the genus Saxifraga and its relatives as "the best plants in the world". It says:

The genus Saxifraga is very extensive, comprising a wide range of perennial plants, many of which are alpines. They are found throughout the greater part of the temperate and sub-arctic zones of the northern hemispheres with outposts in places such as Ethiopia, Mexico and the Arctic.

Some of them look jewels but I suspect it's the fact that it's a hardy plant that inspired the lines:

seed that shows how slight is the sustenance
a life can grow from

It is perhaps an obvious metaphor but it's one that's handled well.

'Dream Family Holiday'

I read this poem over and over again. It is a puzzle which I think I've worked out. The key is the word 'dream' and this is where it pays to read the back of the book where it says:

He now works part-time for the Scottish Parliament's equivalent of Hansard and lives in Linlithgow with his wife and daughter.

and a bit further down the page:

Aiden Michael Philip, the poet's son and first-born child, died shortly after birth in 2005.

So, how is the opening line of the poem possible?

we were together, the four of us;

Like I said, I think I've got it sussed but I'm not going to spoil it for anyone else.


This is the poem most people will struggle with and the one I might have changed if I were editing this collection. Only it is not a collection, it is a sampler and, as such, the poem has its place because it does demonstrate the poet's range. It's just that most people will struggle when faced with lines like:

an the deid bide anent us in wir kitchen,
their whisperin vyces a souch a pain,
a seasonless smirr on the gless.

Just because I'm Scottish doesn't mean I didn't have a wee bit of a fight with it myself. A coronach incidentally is the lamentation or dirge for the dead that accompanied funerals in the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland. So it is perhaps the most appropriate poem to end the sampler with.

When I sat down to read this collection I decided to put on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks as background. It's not something I usually do when reading and frankly I never sit down with the express intention of reading an entire collection of poetry. It worked perfectly though and actually helped me focus on the feelings that are in these poems. I'd recommend something quiet and relaxing, maybe something by Pärt or Vaughan Williams or pretty much any of Eno's ambient works.

As a poet myself I'm inclined to have my meanings at the forefront of my poems, not that I discount feelings but they've always tended to be something of an aside with me. Philip's poetry, to my mind, concentrates on feelings and the meanings are put on the back burner. These are poems you can't read, tick the box – Yeah, I get that one – and then pass onto the next one. This is why I think the music helped me. It slowed me down. Like floating through space. A star has exploded and these are fragments rippling away, getting further and further apart, remnants; they meant something when they were whole. Now they are not meaningless but they mean less and Philip is desperately trying to cling onto that meaning. The feelings are clear and unambiguous however.

Would I recommend this sampler? Unequivocally. He has a way with words which I would suggest is the most important criterion for being a poet. It's not dear. And seriously don’t let the Scotticisms put you off. It'll be your loss if you do.

You can get your copy here.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Self Publishers Anonymous

In 1912 the English writer Adeline Stephen married the writer Leonard Woolf to whom she stayed married until 1941 when she committed suicide. The couple's marriage was actually a happy affair despite the fact she suffered badly from manic depression; many writers do. In 1917 Leonard bought a small, hand-operated printing press; with it he founded the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published most of his wife's work under the name we know her better as, Virginia Woolf – Virginia was her middle name. He survived until 1969 and retained an interest in the press which by this time had become quite successful, e.g. publishing The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot and Laurens van der Post's first novel, In a Province. By this time, of course, they had begun using commercial printers.

In 1997 the Scottish writer Jim Murdoch married the American writer and ezine publisher Carrie Berry to whom he has stayed married up until 2008 and expects this will continue. The marriage has been a surprisingly happy affair considering Murdoch's history of depression. In 2004 Carrie produced a print version of her popular online magazine Gator Springs Gazette and followed this up with the literary journal Bonfire. In 2005 she planned to publish a novel by Paul Gitschner but ill health forced her to abandon all her publishing projects. In 2007, as a means to encourage her husband who was suffering from a particularly debilitating bout of mental illness, she agreed to his suggestion that they work on a project which would culminate in the publication of his first novel. He focused on creating a website and maintaining a blog; she concentrated on final editing and layout, organising cover designs, sending out press releases and dealing with the printer. The promotion they shared between them. There is no indication yet of either wanting to commit suicide, although judging by the sales to date, it could very well be both of them.

Now, why do I mention all of this? The reason is to clarify how my books are going to be published over the next few years. Personally I don't think it matters a damn but it appears the world thinks differently.

There are a number of expressions that have been floating around for a while that need some clarification: POD (print-on-demand), self publishing, vanity publishing, independent publishing and small press which I'll now like to discuss.

There are a number of companies that exist at the moment (Xlibris, Lulu, iUniverse to name but a few) who have taken advantage of developments in printing technology to provide a service to people who want to dip their toes in the publishing business. It's a great idea. It really is. And green. You can publish one copy of one book if you have a mind to. How green is that?

There was a catch though. These companies do nothing to regulate the products they produce and why should they? They're printers, nothing more. Print-on-demand is merely a technology, remember that. Carrie sent the files for my book to our printer (who has a print-on-demand press), and there were a half-dozen typos in it. Whoops. But no biggie because the first run was tiny, enough to fill one small cardboard box and most of those are going to get given away.

So, we're agreed. POD is a good idea. True POD is supposed to match supply with demand on a book by book, just in time basis with no need to retain inventory of any appreciable size. This is ideal for a "stackless" online retail business, for which the issue of non-returnable inventory is a non-issue. But there have been a lot of good ideas that people have made a mess of. And that's what's happened here. Big time. The market has been flooded with crap. Everybody and their auntie were suddenly able – for a modest fee (or even no fee) – to be their own publisher. A good idea suddenly turned into a very bad thing.

So what's the difference between vanity publishing and self publishing? I took a look a who put it this way:

Real self publishers approach the publication of a book like a business. They know that they need to offer the public a competitive product at a competitive price. They understand that authors must aggressively market their own books. Vanity publishing often overlooks the probability (or improbability) of recovering the cost of publication; the author is satisfied simply by getting a book in print.

In our view, the real difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing is whether the author has a realistic expectation of earning a profit.

I'm not sure it's as simple as that but it's a start. The first poem I ever had published was by a vanity firm. Vantage Press and Carlton jump to mind but there are others. I was sixteen and green (no, not the good kind). I paid my money, they printed my poem and everyone was happy. The thing was I had no control over the product. As it happened it appeared in a collection printed on nice paper but surrounded by a couple of hundred other poems and I have no doubt the only people who ever had the chance to read it were my fellow poets, their friends and families.

Okay, what's a small press then these days? The fact is that most small presses don't even have a printing press, not in the same way as Leonard Woolf had a press. Carrie's press sits in a factory somewhere in East Sussex as it happens. The bottom line is that a small press is a business. The thing about that kind of business compared to most other business is the product; it's the kind of product that doesn't usually make a lot of money, if any, so the people who get involved in these kind of ventures certainly don't do so to get rich quick – or at all.

To start off any business there needs to be an outlay. Even the humble street sweeper needs a brush before he can do his job. So, he starts off with a loss. In simple terms: you've got to speculate to accumulate.

Previously I've made a point of talking about my publisher as a third party and there was a reason for that. Because it doesn't matter to my mind who has published the book as long as it has been done to a professional standard. It does to some people though. Here's a comment made by L K Campbell on POD People's website:

I've been told that mentioning my self-pubbed books has kept me from getting published. So I've decided to test the theory. I queried an editor last week and didn't mention my books at all. I said that I was unpublished. We'll see what happens. But if they do offer on my book, I'm afraid that they'll be p*ssed when they find out about my self-pubbed books.

Suddenly, there is a stigma attached to going it alone. Bear with me, I'll get back to that.

In his article Self-Publishing: Is It For You? Thomas M. Sipos makes this important distinction:

[T]he vanity press stigma does not attach because the author pays for publishing, but because self-published/vanity press books do not pass a third party screen.

So I treat my publisher as a third party because she is one. Granted we squabble like husband and wife over some of the changes she wants to make but that doesn't mean she doesn't take her role seriously. The good thing about her being my wife is that she cares about the product almost as much as I do. It is NOT just a job to her.

I'm a writer. I'm an author. I'm a published author. To some people these terms are all different. To some people I'm a pretender to the throne. Okay, so you didn't publish your book but your wife did and the money came out of your joint bank account. You're self-published in all but name!

And my answer is: "Big [please insert your expletive of choice] deal!

I could list off all the great authors who have self-published in the past. Many editions of Leaves of Grass were published by Whitman himself. Philip Larkin, Edgar Allan Poe, D. H. Lawrence, Stephen Crane, Margaret Atwood, E. E. Cummings, Stephen King even ALL saw fit to do it.

So when did it become so much of a stigma that I felt the need to disguise the fact? It happened because of companies like the aforementioned Lulu, XLibris and iUniverse (all of whose services I considered in the past) who "publish" unregulated material. Initially, Xlibris accepted books for free. Some of its authors comforted themselves in the lie that this distinguished them from lowly vanity press authors. This was idiotic false pride. Xlibris accepted every submission, so being "published" through them signified nothing. They "published" everything and anything.

I wanted to be published but I knew that if it said Xlibris or any of the others on the spine then it would be judged without the book ever being opened. And my book is too good for that. I can say that with a bit more confidence now because I've read the reviews.

Self publishing is an act of vanity. Any kind of publishing is an act of vanity. Wanting to see your name in print no matter whose imprint it is under is an act of vanity. I am a vain man. Can we please move on now?

There is an attitude that’s summed up in this question: If what you're putting out is any good at all, why the hell isn't it being properly published somewhere? It's a reasonable question until you look at what is being published these days. Consider this quote by novelist Larry McMurtry:

It is really reductive to call what we have now a 'publishing industry,' when what it is is a media complex, in which promotability, not literary merit, is the sine qua non.

To see what he's on about just look at the top ten bestsellers in any week.

Stigma is not always a bad thing though:

[S]tigma serves a purpose. It should urge self publishers to do better work, to strive for higher standards for themselves regardless the potential or not of future attention from respected sources. It says, I am doing what I want to do, with the full knowledge that I will not be paid for it, and will probably not get much appreciation for having done it. - Self Publishing Stigma

The whole vanity press stigma is a curious thing. People have been shooting their own movies and pressing their own CDs for years and yet this is regarded as a positive thing. It's a marketing ploy. They call themselves independent. Indie filmmakers and indie record labels are looked on as a good thing, something to be encouraged and supported, even where the films are inept and the music unlistenable to. Another word from Thomas M. Sipos:

Press a CD into a DJ’s hand, and he’ll give it a listen, eager to discover new talent. Press a "vanity book" into a bookstore owner’s hand, and eyes roll. Books require a screen, whereas film and music do not. Funny, but that’s how the world sees it.

One of the hurdles you have to overcome in getting your name known is the review. So far my book has had four reviews and I'm now going to direct you to a fifth at POD People where Cheryl Anne Gardner gives the book 7/10 and refers to the character of Truth as "one of the most endearing antagonists I have come across". There are more reviews on the cards. Granted none of these sites attract huge visitor numbers but who am I to complain? I'm an unknown writer in an overcrowded market trying to flog a book that everybody is struggling to classify because it stubbornly refuses to slip into a nice marketable genre.

There is so much material online about this. It's tiring (and not a little depressing) to read it all. And I need no help to be depressed, thank you very much.

Some bands make it big with their first album. And that's great. With others it takes a while for them to develop a following. I don't expect to make a financial profit with this first novel. I do expect to stack up enough positive feedback so that when the next book comes out people will be able to say, "Hey, I read about this guy's last book. Maybe we should give this one a go." It's a gamble and one I wish I'd taken ten years ago before all this kafuffle started but if wishes were horses who is to say I would have backed a winner even then?

One final comment. The only real criticism I've had of the book so far has been the editing which is ironically the one thing (other than the physical printing) we paid a third party to do. I engaged what I thought at the time was a reputable company to do the work about ten years ago when I first completed the novel. Numerous e-mails went back and forth discussing the finer points of the text and persuading me to break up some of my longer sentences and so I thought we'd put that one to bed. Carrie only did a final touch-up and I reworked a few sentences so that they'd fit better when the text was reformatted as an actual book. It just goes to show you, doesn't it? Incidentally the company we used is still on the go and, although I'm naming no names, is actually quite well respected. So there.

Hi, my name is Jim and I'm a self published author.

Sunday 22 June 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 3

AGGIE: Shuggie!
SHUGGIE: (snore)
SHUGGIE: Whithefu?
AGGIE: Have ye seen Rachel Fox's bloag t'day?
SHUGGIE: Naw, Ah don't read her stuff. She rambles an Ah've enough wi wan wumman ramblin oan at me aw day long withoot anither wan.
AGGIE: Hey, you! Git yer fat arse o'er here while Ah skelp ye.
SHUGGIE: No bloody likely. Ah'll jist stay put o'er here.
AGGIE: Fine. Now d'ye wanti know whit Rachel's oan aboot?
SHUGGIE: Aye, awright.
AGGIE: She's only goin oan at oor Jim.
SHUGGIE: She's no! Ah'll smash her face in.
AGGIE: No like that ye pillock. C'mere an see.
SHUGGIE: AYAH! Whidya hit me fer, wumman?
AGGIE: Ye know full well whit fer. Look at that.
AGGIE: She's written a bloag aboot oor Jim.
SHUGGIE: Is it no aboot his book?
AGGIE: No really.
SHUGGIE: Whidye mean, no really? Ah thought she might be pluggin his book.
AGGIE: It's kinda aboot him instead.
SHUGGIE: Whit's she goat t'say aboot him? It better be good or Ah’ll…
AGGIE: Sssssht! Ah'm still readin it! There's some kinda checklist at the end.
SHUGGIE: Well read it quick so Ah cun see whit's she oan aboot.
AGGIE: Will ye stoap leanin o'er ma shoulda?
SHUGGIE: Ah'm jist tryin t'see.
AGGIE: Have ye brushed yer teeth t'day?
SHUGGIE: How come?
AGGIE: Cos yer breath smells like a badger's bum. Goan dae it right this time while Ah finish wi Rachel's bloag.
SHUGGIE: Ah'm goin.
AGGIE: An ye might think aboot changin that vest too. An wash yer oaksters while yer at it.
SHUGGIE: Fine. Nag.
AGGIE: Clatty midden.
AGGIE: Lard arse.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Big brothers and blind poets

Seeing has always, to perhaps an extreme extent, been my sense of choice… I couldn't ever see or read enough. – Candia McWilliam

Big Brother is back. Yay. I wonder what the ratio is these days between those who associate 'Big Brother' with the reality TV show and the book in which the character fails to appear and yet is everywhere at the same time? I think the answer might upset me so I'd rather not know. My wife and I, as we do every year, watched the launch show, albeit the next day since the live show was on opposite House and my wife does love her Hugh Laurie. These years, amongst the contestants, were an albino and a blind guy, a blind Scotsman actually. The rest of course wear their oddities on the inside.

Jump forward a couple of days and my wife and I were in Waterstones where I picked up a copy of the Scottish Review of Books (Vol 4 No 2) in which there is a lengthy diary entry by Candia McWilliam. Entitled, 'My Annulled Eyes', it describes how – and talk about timing – she began to go blind whilst a judge on the Man Booker Prize:

The PR people of the Man Booker were quite understandably anxious that I not let on that it appeared that I was losing my one use for them, i.e. my capacity to see (I'd less sense that they wanted what one might understand as my capacity to read).

The condition she is suffering from is one I've never heard of. She was visited at home by her Chinese neurologist:

"Ah," she said, "the sensory geste." I didn't know what she meant. "You have blepharospasm. You eyes are fine but your brain won't open them," she said.

Now, we need to jump back about twenty five years to the time my father started to lose his sight. In his case it was glaucoma that did the damage. For several years he did what he could to stop the degradation, including regularly splashing cold water on his eyeballs, and the eye doctors were amazed that he managed to hang onto what sight he had for as long as he did but in time the condition got the better of him. He had never been a great reader. He'd always planned to use his retirement to catch up but that never happened and the kind of books he would have wanted to read, text books as opposed to fiction, are not readily available as audio books. There were times I went over to visit him and I'd walk in the back door unannounced (as was our habit) to find him sitting in the back room in silence staring into an unseen distance … and he'd tell me that he'd do that for hours. I have a photograph of him on the unit in our living room – obscured at the moment by my wife's birthday cards – and he's just sitting in his chair staring blankly ahead straight at the camera. Strangely enough it was his favourite photo of himself.

Back to the present. Glaucoma is an inherited disorder. It affects one in two hundred people aged fifty and younger, and one in ten over the age of eighty and often presents itself in middle age. It is something I am acutely aware of. It can be treated and quite effectively but, and this is why it gets known as the "sneaky thief of sight", it takes a while before you notice the damage. My dad simply thought it was old age catching up on him and by the time he went to get his eyes checked the damage was done and couldn't be undone. The bottom line is that I could lose my sight some day if I'm not careful. It's a sobering thought.

Blindness is a disability but a disability in not an inability. There have been deaf composers (Beethoven) and musicians (Evelyn Glennie) so why not blind writers? Well, actually there have been plenty from Homer on.

The image of the blind poet is a romantic notion. Even I've written about it:


After several years he
turned to his old themes
assuming he had missed the
answers or perhaps there was
more to be said.

I found him there.
Cold and confused –
he almost didn't know me –
hiding himself in the dark.

"I blinded myself, you know, because
everything I saw looked the same
and I got tired of looking.

"I realized how ugly,
like an open wound.
And like an animal
I'm drawn closer."

27 June 1985

To be honest though, when you look at blindness in practical terms it's a little harder to think of it that way. Let's consider one example, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges went blind in 1955. The cause was hereditary retinal detachment, but he continued writing. He reports:

I knew I would go blind, because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandfather, they had all gone blind. Since the year we got rid of the unspeakable scoundrel Perón, I have been unable to read or write. Consequently, if somebody tells me 'Well, I'll have to go and you'll be by yourself,' then I can just sit down and think or perhaps not think at all but let myself go on living.

When I lost my sight I was rather worried over it, and in my dreams I was always reading. Then somehow I never could read because a word became twice or thrice as long as it was, or rather instead of one line there would be other lines springing like branches out of it. Now I no longer dream of reading, because I know that's beyond me.

Sometimes I see a closed book and then I say, 'I could read this particular book,' but at the same time even inside my dream I know I can't, so I take good care not to open that particular book. – Israel Shenker, Borges a Blind Writer with Insight

Ironically he began losing his eyesight just at the moment he was appointed director of the national library in Argentina, the job of his dreams. "There I was," he wrote, "the centre, in a way, of 900,000 books in various languages. But I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines." It's a noteworthy point. Borges called himself a reader first, and then a poet. Writers are always readers and they read considerably more than they write. Borges continued to write long after 1955 but reading is another thing completely.

There are, of course, writers who have been blind since birth. Stephen Kuusisto is an example. He holds a dual appointment at the University of Iowa where he teaches courses in creative nonfiction in the Department of English and serves as a public humanities scholar in the College of Medicine. I think the situation for writers like Kuusisto is a little different because he never lost his sight – he was blind from birth. It's the old truism: you can't miss what you never had. Yeah right.

In an essay about author Henry Grunwald, who is losing his sight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt has this to say:

The absence of sight can be made into a virtue, but reality bites. "I was blind, but now I see," goes 'Amazing Grace.' But the truth is that one wants to see actually as well as spiritually. I don't know if the great blind people of history would've traded insight for sight, but in any case, they had no choice. So one is left staring inwardly at all the astonishing objects they discovered in the dark. In a way, they became remarkable sights themselves. – Dying of the Light

So, let's say I find out tomorrow that I'm going to go blind, what would I miss seeing the most? I could go all syrupy and say, "The faces of my wife and daughter," but I know what they look like and I'd rather not see them grow any older if I'm being honest. I certainly wouldn't miss seeing my own tired face. I'm not that sure I'd miss reading that much. I've never devoured books. I'm always counting pages to the end of the chapter I'm on. I'd miss art more. I mean, how do you translate a painting? I think I could cope with audio books. The Internet would be a problem. I know from building my website how much thought you need to put in to making it blind friendly. TV wouldn't be the same but I could survive without Big Brother I think.

Writing would be a challenge. I tried (many years ago I have to say) dictating into a cassette but it didn't work out too well. I'm not sure there's anything I would have a problem with, even a novel. I work in a very modular way, so I could cope with that. My wife has some audio software Dragon Naturally Speaking which she gave up on but if either of us did go blind, it's there. I have used a speech-to-text programme to listen to something I've written. It was okay but there are better ones on the market and no doubt they'll get better still. I'd cope. I've always coped. But is coping enough?

We writers are proud of our imaginations but can you imagine going blind? I have no doubt you'll all have lots of thoughts on the matter and I'd be keen to hear them. Quickly now, before the light fades.

Monday 16 June 2008

More about the song

I don't own many books of contemporary poetry. It is a rare book that catches my eye and generally after flicking though a couple of pages I know if it's going to be my cup of tea. Once when I was in a pokey wee used book store in Edinburgh I chanced upon a copy of Plain Clothes (1971) by the Scottish poet Libby Houston, her second collection as it happens. I didn't know her and I expect I picked up the book – a hardback no less – because the photograph on the cover looked sad. She was probably going for thoughtful but sad is what I saw.

Houston came to the world's attention following an appearance at The Edinburgh Festival and her first collection A Stained Glass Raree Show (1961) was well received. I'm not sure what she's doing now – information on the Web is a bit thin – but the last book that was published was In Cover of Darkness: Selected Poems, 1961 – 1998. One reviewer had this to say:

Houston’s poetry has continuously flown in the face of convention, vividly conveying the author’s spirited, iconoclastic philosophy, yet remaining resistant to easy classification.

Another review talked of her poetry "scorning fashion and compromise".

The poems in Plain Clothes are a mixed bag. Some are only two or three lines in length; there's a sonnet and a number of musical forms, a 'Transatlantic Rhapsody', a 'Carol for Ephemeral Creatures', the strange 'Alien Pomp' and the even stranger 'Rotting Song'. Oh, and much of the stuff rhymes but certainly not all of it. Some of it is actually quite dark.

But I'm not here to talk about Libby Houston. I'm here to talk about Rachel Fox who is not a Scottish poet by birth but since she lives here we're happy to adopt her. Rachel, a bit of a late starter, has been writing poetry since about 1997 and has just seen fit to publish her first collection, More about the song. I've read her poetry on-line so I'm familiar with her work but I was curious how she would present her first collection.

Like any author she has fears about how her work will be received:

The negative criticisms I am not looking forward to include (a) 'a nice light book of performance poetry' … (b) 'a good editor would have helped this book' … and (c) 'this is nothing new'.

I'll come back to all of these later.

The book is eighty pages long (seventy-three poems including the one of the back cover masquerading as blurb) and is divided into seven sections:

  • Singing
  • What's going on?
  • Freaking out
  • Going round
  • Seeing and believing
  • Loving
  • Keeping on

The style is varied in exactly the same way as Houston's: short poems, long poems, rhyming poems, dark poems. And, to answer her first fear, yes, there are some light performance pieces but there were few that I could imagine Pam Ayres doing justice to. The most effective piece of this ilk is 'Let me be your fridge magnet':

Let me be your fridge magnet

Let me slip into your home
Like a leaflet for a loan
Hidden in a free newspaper
Or supermarket circular
I'm not proud

Oh how I'd love to be your Baby on Board
Suckered on to your smoothness
I'd feel every bump in your road
Know exactly how much air was in your tyres
If you let me

I could stick faster still
If you'd let me be your fridge magnet
I'd hang on to your cool place
So perky, so keen
I wouldn't let you down

I'd be superficial for you, gladly
Cling to any surface – as long as it was yours
Then I'd ask softly 'do you understand now?
Do you get the message?
Do you read me at all?'

This poem reads perfectly well out loud and just to prove it listen to Fox read the poem here. It doesn't even rhyme! Have you ever heard Pam Ayres read a poem that doesn't rhyme? "I like poets who can aim deep," says Fox, "and yet can still perform to an audience of people (not just poets)..."

She clearly has a strong feeling for musicality of words and for music itself. A lot of the poems, if not out-and-out songs masquerading as poems, certainly reveal her influences, reference to folk clubs, Robert Plant, Björk, Nina Simone, Madonna, Bob Geldof, and a certain teen idol from the seventies:

Number 1 fan

At 6 I loved Donny
Right till death us do part
At 7 I moved on
Oh, the young, cheating heart

Like Libby Houston, Rachel Fox is particularly at home with shorter verse forms and some of these can be biting in their effectiveness. The Freaking Out section opens with this powerful little gem:


What can the matter be?
What can the matter
Is more like it

For me this is the most powerful section including 'Hiding in the toilet of life' and 'Not tonight, Radiohead'. Some of the work here reminded me of Spike Milligan. Yes, Spike could be funny and silly, but he suffered for years with depression and the subject was not one he shied away from in his work even if he sometimes used a light touch to make his point.

To tackle her second fear I have to say I personally would have presented the material differently. There is something of an arc throughout the seven sections going from childhood to adulthood, through good times and bad and there must have been times she was in despair deciding where to put the poems. I might've been tempted to put 'History at 40' at the end of the book and the whole Love section seems a bit late in the sequence. So much, when it comes down to it, is personal preference.

I'll let Fox herself answer any criticism of her editorial choices:

I know there are things a literary editor type person would not have included...about half of the poems probably...maybe more...but I don't write for literary editors or academics specifically...I write for me and for people/readers/listeners right across the board.

Her last fear is not an unreasonable one. There have been so many people writing poetry that it's impossible not to present a poem where your influences are hanging out all over the place for the world to see. I flicked though this collection and immediately thought of Libby Houston. I asked and Fox has never even heard of her.

As for content, yes, it's all been done before, people have been born, lived, made a muck-up of living, fallen in love, even found a smattering of happiness and clung to it for dear life and it'll continue long after all of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. The skill, and this is where Rachel stands on her own, is to make us think about the same-ol'-same-ol':

Short valentine

Roses are red
Violets are violet
Please love me
My life's in the toilet

As a retrospective, looking back on the first ten years, this is a decent enough collection. It shows the length and breadth and depth of an emerging talent. There are some good poems here and a few surprises especially in the depths to some of the 'funny poems'. There are a few that "a literary editor type person" wouldn't have included and a bit more white space around the poems would have been nice. For my money, however, the collection would almost be worth buying for 'She's not there', a poem about the artist Joan Eardley's 1943 self portrait. This is a stoater of a poem. It's not quite Eliot (I don't get most of Eliot, anyway) but it has a voice, a tone that resonates in exactly the same way as 'The Hollow Men'. Here's the final stanza:

The portrait feels like family
Or so I can imagine
We are the not quite whole people
The bits and pieces people
The hundreds and the thousands

At the start I quoted from a review of forty years of Libby Houston's poetry. What I can imagine being written about Rachel Fox in another thirty might well be:

Fox’s poetry has continuously flown in the face of convention, vividly conveying the author’s spirited, iconoclastic philosophy, yet remaining resistant to easy classification.

More about the song is a good start down that road.

I asked her about the title to the collection and she referred me to the poem on page 12, 'The song remains', the last two lines of which are:

Worry less about the cleverness
Worry more about the song

It's a poem about writing poetry, what writing poetry means to her and in this respect she has much in common (in ideals if not exactly techniques) with poets like William Carlos Williams who use plain language. His work is fresh and clear, rejecting sentimentality and vagueness and I could say much the same about Fox's work. Fox comes from an academic background; in Scottish parlance: she's no a daftie and don't treat her like one. Her approach to poetry is a conscious choice, not something she has stumbled into as a rank amateur, but it is also, she says, the only way she feels comfortable writing, as she explains:

I don't like it when the more obscure, academic, difficult poetry is somehow automatically given more kudos than any other poetry - when it is seen as quality writing and anything else is performance or light or doggerel. The academic approach is a valid way of working but why is writing for a wider audience not given as much credit or critical attention? Both types of writing are important if we want to keep poetry a vibrant artform.

This is where the concept of "the song" makes itself apparent in her poetry. She wants to bring the accessibility and communicativeness of songs (the poetry of the common people) back to poetry, to take things full circle if you like. She makes no apology for being a bigger fan of music than of poetry but then there is so much poetry out there that refuses to speak to but a few; music, the song especially, speaks to everyone and that is what Fox aspires to.

Rachel Fox was born in the north of England and now lives in Montrose in Angus. After school she studied languages before flitting through a broad range of jobs until, as he puts it, "she discovered that caring for family full-time was the perfect cover for poetry writing and associated pursuits". She often reads her poetry in public and has even been known to join in when one of her songs is being performed. She can be found on-line at More about the song - rambling with Rachel Fox, her … well, frankly … rambly blog.

More about the song (Crowd-pleasers Press) can be purchased directly from her website.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 2

AGGIE: Whit's qualia when it's at hame?
SHUGGIE: Qualia?
SHUGGIE: Is that no a wee burd, like a pigeon?
AGGIE: Nah, that's a quail, ye daft bat.
SHUGGIE: So where're ye readin aboot qualias?
AGGIE: Oan Kay Sexton's bloag.
SHUGGIE: Never heard af 'er. Whit's she like? Sum nature freak?
AGGIE: It's jist a bloag. There's no burds oan it. She's a writer.
SHUGGIE: Pity, ah like burds.
AGGIE: An we aw know whit kinda burds you like. If ye're no goanna be a help jist shut up. Ah'm tryin t'read a review.
SHUGGIE: Anither yin. We read wan a couple a days ago. Is it that book've Jim's?
SHUGGIE: Did you order it like ye said ye would?
AGGIE: I told you Ah did.
SHUGGIE: Ah bet 'e's tryin t'get awa wi jist postin a link t'the review an skippin oan daein a real post.
AGGIE: Nah, there's an interview here an evrythin.
SHUGGIE: Wi oor Jim? Whit's e goat t'say aboot burds?
AGGIE: There's nothin aboot burds.
SHUGGIE: Then how're ye askin me aboot quails?
AGGIE: It's this review. She says Jim's book reminds her af qualia.
SHUGGIE: Maybe it's French fur quail.
AGGIE: Ah don't think so. An then she goes oan aboot the thinginess of things.
SHUGGIE: The whitiness of whits?
AGGIE: Look, Ah canne read this if yoor goanna keep blabberin oan.
SHUGGIE: You asked me aboot burds.
AGGIE: Ah didne.
SHUGGIE: You so did.
AGGIE: Christ, this is too much. Ah'm goanna make a cuppa. You want one?
SHUGGIE: Shhh, Ah'm tryin t'read Kay's bloag.

Monday 9 June 2008

Aggie and Shuggie

AGGIE: Shuggie!
AGGIE: Have ye seen oor Jim's bloag?
AGGIE: It's no there.
SHUGGIE: Whidja mean, "No there?"
AGGIE: Ah'm tellin ye, it's no there.
SHUGGIE: Shove o'er. Let me look.
SHUGGIE: Wait till Ah find ma glasses.
AGGIE: Whur d'ye leave 'em?
SHUGGIE: How the hell do Ah know?
AGGIE: Did ye leave 'em in the loo?
SHUGGIE: Ah'll check.
AGGIE: Well?
SHUGGIE: All right wumman! They're here.
AGGIE: Right, will ye have a look now?
SHUGGIE: Ah'm lookin.
AGGIE: See! Ah told ye. It's no there.
SHUGGIE: Af course it's there. See there's his butterfly-thingy.
AGGIE: Ah seen that but there's no bloag.
SHUGGIE: Sure there is. It's jist people talkin that's aw.
AGGIE: Whit're they oan about?
SHUGGIE: Ah'm tryin t'read. Gie us a second.
AGGIE: Well?
SHUGGIE: He's proably goanna plug that book o' his.
AGGIE: Oh, 'sthat aw?
SHUGGIE: Wait a sec. There's a link.
AGGIE: Whur to?
SHUGGIE: Orgrease Crankbait
AGGIE: That's no a real name.
SHUGGIE: Ah never said it were.
AGGIE: Is it up yet?
SHUGGIE: Aye. Look! Ah told ye. It's another review.
AGGIE: Af whit?
SHUGGIE: Oor Jim's book.
AGGIE: Did we no buy it already?
SHUGGIE: Ah thought you wus ordering it.
AGGIE: Ah've goat enough t'do chasin after your arse. Whit's that Greasy bloke goat t'say?
SHUGGIE: Ah'm readin.
AGGIE: Is it good?
SHUGGIE: Seems to be. He calls Jim 'erudite'.
AGGIE: That's a kind o' glue.
SHUGGIE: Nah, that's Araldite.
AGGIE: Aw. Right. Cun Ah huv a shuftie?
SHUGGIE: Ah've closed the windae.
AGGIE: Whidya dae that fur?
SHUGGIE: Ah wisne thinkin.
AGGIE: So whit's new there? Get it back then.
SHUGGIE: Ah've goat t'go walk the dog. There, click oan the link yersel.
AGGIE: Ah can't see it.
SHUGGIE: Yer blin. It's right there: Orgrease Crankbait.
AGGIE: Ah still think that's a shite name fur a wean. Hey!
AGGIE: Ye don't fancy bringin in a chippy oan yer way back?
SHUGGIE: Steak pie supper, hen?
AGGIE: Magic.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Portrait of the writer as a drunken skunk (part two)

The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. - Roald Dahl

In part one we looked at some of the romantic notions attached to writing and drink. In this part we'll consider what drink actually does to you.

I suppose the question we want to focus on is: Where, if at all, does booze figure into the creative process? "I don't think alcohol leads to creativity but I think creativity leads to alcohol," write author Sally Sullivan in Writing Fiction and Poetry, "I think the pressures of writing, of being truthful with your life and very open, which is what writing demands, make people turn to something that will dull the pain of that." In Week 10 of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron she discusses the various blocks to creativity. One of them is, strangely enough, alcohol.

William Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice, didn't write under the influence of alcohol, but ''I did use it," he said, "often in conjunction with music, as a means to let my brain conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to.'' Larkin's alcohol dependence is no longer a secret but it wasn't an asset to him: ("I get up at 6 A.M. [to write]. It's the only time I'm not drunk," he wrote to Kingsley Amis). Amis was also a heavy drinker but he also didn't try to write while intoxicated. In later life he became a stickler for routine, finishing work promptly at twelve noon, when the first scotch was promptly downed, then to his club (the Garrick) for lunch, where he stayed drinking until five thirty, before leaving to be somewhere else for drinks at six. For Jack London before him drink was his reward for being a good boy. For a long time after he turned to writing, he refused to drink until he had done his thousand words a day. Soon he learned to get a "pleasant jingle," as he called it, after the thousand words were on paper but before lunch. (This is quite typical behaviour amongst writer-drinkers). Then he acquired another "jingle" before dinner. "It was the old proposition," he writes. "The more I drank, the more I was compelled to drink in order to get an effect."

Writers as distant as Fitzgerald and Stephen King are quoted by Goodwin in support of alcohol's ability to enhance creativity. O Henry boasted: "Combining a little orange juice with a little scotch, the author drinks the health of all magazine editors, sharpens his pencil and begins to write. When the oranges are empty and the flask is dry, a saleable piece of fiction is ready for mailing." Almost from the start Hart Crane used alcohol and music to induce a state of creative excitement.

But this is neither a twentieth century nor a particularly American phenomenon. The fifth century Greek poet Cratinus, famed for his intemperance, once declared, "No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by water drinkers." Legend has it that he died of grief upon seeing a full cask of wine break into pieces. In fact the notion of alcohol as a source of inspiration can be traced back to the Greek:

Christopher Hitchens, an empirical student of the matter, says the connection is "oblique," but he observes that the "word 'spirit' preserves the initial intuition of the 'inspired' that was detected by the Greeks." – Los Angeles Times

In 1714, Alexander Pope spoke of being "prepared by drinking to speak truth." Keats, in an 1819 letter, described how "ethereal" claret "mounts into the brain" and makes one "a Hermes," god of, among other things, eloquence. Tennyson, according to his friend James Knowles' 1893 reminiscence, would "look upon his bottle of port as a sort of counsellor." When the poet received the letter offering him the poet laureateship of Britain, he brooded inconclusively until finally composing two letters – one accepting and one declining – placing them on his table and resolving to decide which to send after finishing his bottle of port. He accepted.

It is to the early Romantic movement that we owe the curious suggestion that intoxicated states might provide a literal means of communicating with the creative spirit within ourselves. The effects of opium, whether smoked or swallowed in tinctured form as laudanum, couldn't just be entertaining in themselves. They were pressed into service as a kind of creative sacrament, a means of usefully distinguishing one's own noble endeavours from those mill-workers getting hammered at the end of the eternal working week. – Stuart Walton, The Guardian

This idea got its second wind in the 1960s. Opium and laudanum were no longer the drugs of choice but good ol' alcohol was still hanging on in there.

A recent study compared the performance of three groups on a creative task. One group was given alcohol. Another group was given tonic water. A third group was led to believe they had been given alcohol – but had not. Apparently, the best performing group consisted of those who wrongly believed they had been given alcohol. Perhaps this led to less inhibited thinking without the actual negative effects of real alcohol. In the same way it is possible to speculate that belief and confidence in one's own creative skill may actually increase that skill. – Creative People: Are we as creative as we'd like to think we are?

The chemical alcohol may have nothing to do with increasing creativity but the belief that it can might. That pretty much reduces it to the level of a lucky rabbit's foot.

Studies of the effects of alcohol use on creativity have had mixed results, which may be a function of cultural differences as well as the difficulty of developing adequate research paradigms for this complex phenomenon. Alcohol may facilitate the incubation phase of creativity but obstruct intellectual processing, may help inhibited subjects, can reduce writer's block, and can be used for self-stimulation. In two well-designed experimental studies, Lang, Verret and Watt (1984) found that alcohol consumption did not actually affect creative performance (although subjects who had drunk judged their work more favourably), and Lapp et al. found that drinking had a substantial placebo effect on creativity, but no pharmacological effect. – Alcohol and Pleasure: A Health Perspective

The South African writer Athol Fugard, who has acknowledged that alcohol has had a strong influence in his life, is referenced in the following excerpt:

The alcoholic's theory of power is, Fugard suggests, a theory of self-deception. By claiming that alcohol fuels creativity, the drinker perpetuates the relationship construed between himself or herself, alcohol, drinking, and the act of writing. The drinker reaches for power in the world through written words, yet is dependent on alcohol for that power. Hence power is based, Fugard suggests, on a myth, a romantic notion that the power to think creatively can be given through alcohol. In this case cause is confused for effect, the writer thinking that the cause of creativity is alcohol, when, in fact, alcohol is both the cause and the effect of the chain of thought when he or she drinks and attempts to write. – The Alcoholic Society: Addiction and Recovery of the Self

For some writers alcohol though was a refuge, a safe place to crawl into once the writing was done or when they found they couldn't write. Malcolm Lowry whose intake was nothing less than gargantuan, "drank in order to avoid writing, sobered up in order to write, then drank in order to avoid writing."

This brings us to the third point on Goodwin's list. The hours may be good but they're lonely hours. For a lot of authors the drinking has nothing to do with the fact that they're writers per se rather the fact that they work in a job where they spend a lot of time in their own company. Is the image of the writer sitting all alone (Beckett's Krapp leaps to mind) realistic? For some, of course. The fact is that a great many writers were actually social drinkers. Writers gathering together dates back to – surprise, surprise – Greek times and the Platonic symposia that went on back then. These were essentially drinking parties that featured the work of one of their members where they would highlight their work. Is it any wonder that the poetry readings of today so often take place on licensed premises?

Examples of writers congregating around a bottle are: Hugh McDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Norman MacCaig in the Rose Street pubs of Edinburgh (I've been drunk there); Dorothy Parker and the wits of the Algonquin Round Table in New York; and Flann O'Brien and Patrick Kavanagh in the drinking dens of Dublin. The post-war Soho scene in London encompassed the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde - all artists, just to show that excessive drinking is not the exclusive province of writers (as if you needed that point hammered home).

Okay, enough waffle. What's the bottom line? Stuart Walton in his Guardian article had this to say about all the science stuff:

Any attempt to convince ourselves today that drinking might be conducive to writing is, however, self-delusion. We now know that, like many other intoxicants, alcohol has an initial stimulant effect on the key neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which contribute to the familiar feeling of well-being that the evening's first drink delivers. It also acts on a neurotransmitter known, sweetly enough, as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is an inhibitory agent found throughout the brain. GABA plays an important role in the memory function, which includes assisting the brain to discard the material it doesn't need to retain. Alcohol's stimulation of the GABA receptors enhances the inhibitory action of this chemical, which is why it becomes harder to remember your PIN number, your colleague's name, and finally your own address, during a particularly determined session.

Other cognitive functions will degrade along with memory under the influence of alcohol, so it is hard to believe that any writer is going to be at the top of his or her game while drinking. Of course, it depends what kind of writing you are aiming at. A stream of fragmentary consciousness might emerge, but the world has, perhaps, had enough of those now, and publishers won't buy them. If you're working on a cultural history of aristocratic dress in the Second Empire, forget it.

The question arises as to whether other less cognitively debilitating intoxicants than alcohol might aid the writer's task. Cocaine, perhaps, won't reduce you to the horizontal Malcolm Lowry position, but it hardly facilitates thought processes. What it does instead is call attention to itself, which is after all why it seems like a good idea in the first place. But you won't find yourself focusing more intensely on those Second Empire crinolines while your central nervous system is under stimulant attack. It frankly can't be bothered with such mundanities.

When all is said and done, writing is, to those professionally engaged in it, a form of work. And if you expect to be able to lubricate the process with Shiraz, the truth is that you aren't really taking either the writing itself, not to mention the possible dysfunctional drinking, seriously.

Had he been alive, this may well have been Kingsely Amis's response:

Alcohol science is full of crap. It will tell you, for instance, that drink does not really warm you up, it only makes you feel warm—oh, I see; and it will go on about alcohol being not a stimulant but a depressant, which turns out to mean that it depresses qualities like shyness and self-criticism, and so makes you behave as if you had been stimulated—thanks. In the same style, the said science will maintain that alcohol does not really fatten you, it only sets in train a process at the end of which you weigh more. Nevertheless, strong drink does, more than anything else taken by mouth, apart from stuff like cement, cram on the poundage. – Kingsley Amis (quoted in Take a Dipso like You by Alexander Waugh)

An experiment was carried out in 2004 which you can read about here. A challenge was issued to attempt to write under the influence and post the results. There weren't many takers but what did end up on-line is of interest. Here's part of the last participant's entry which I'll leave you with as a final thought:

Ultimately I found that alcohol swamps creativity. Towards the end of the exercise it was seriously impeding my ability to have linear thoughts. I stared at the title of the last essay for ten minutes, without a single idea in my head.

It also had a catastrophic effect on my motor skills. I was typing entries into MS WORD. Practically every sentence was heavily underscored in red. Had I been writing in longhand, or without the aid of a spellchecker, the results would have been near indecipherable.

With reflection I think the one positive effect that alcohol had on me, was that it made me write like I didn’t give a fuck about the end result.

Monday 2 June 2008

Portrait of the writer as a drunken skunk (part one)

The Chinese say that the liver is the source of anger. Alcoholics and addicts medicate their anger. – Gil Grissom, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation , Season 4

The following films all contain characters who are writers.

The Lost Weekend (1945); Bell, Book and Candle (1958); The Prize (1963); Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972); Death on the Nile (1978); The Fourth Man (1983); Barfly (1987); London Suite (1996); 28 Days (2000); Chelsea Walls (2002); My House in Umbria (2003); Secret Window (2004) and Puritan (2005).

Question: What do they all have in common?

Answer: Every single one of them has, to a greater or lesser extent, a drink problem.

Reality is similarly inhabited by writers who are overly fond of the drink: Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Hugh McDiarmid, Dorothy Parker, F Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Larkin, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Edgar Allen Poe, Marguerite Duras, Theodore Roethke, Herman Melville, Kingsley Amis, Georges Simenon, William Faulkner … the list seemingly goes on and on.

Of course not all were out-and-out alcoholics but the stereotype of the writer with a pen in one hand and a glass in the other doesn't seem to want to go away. Alcohol is a gifted chemical. Depending on how much is consumed, it can act as a food, a drug or a poison. Don't you think there's something quite poetic about that?

I bought a book a dozen years ago called Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. It's a textbook essentially and quite a comprehensive one at that. In it are photographs of the various authors and I was taken aback by how many writers I knew but had no idea (and surprisingly little interest in) what they actually looked like. Salinger was an obvious one since he doesn't allow his photograph to be used on any of his books, not that he's very inspiring looking; at least he wasn't when he was a young man. No doubt his face will have picked up a bit of character over the years. I tried to imagine my photo in the book but couldn't quite picture me there. I mean, what is an author supposed to look like? Or be like, come to think of it. I knew that I was a writer – there was evidence to back up that that I couldn't really argue with – but maybe I still wasn't doing it right. For starters I didn't drink. Maybe I'd be a better writer if I did.

I wasn't brought up in an environment where drink was the norm. Occasionally a bottle of Martini would appear at the end of the working week. My dad would let me taste it. It was awful. I couldn't comprehend how they could sit there and sup the stuff. During my plooky youth I did my fair share of experimenting, went through phases of drinking gin, vodka, cider and lager (never very fond of beer and hated whiskey) and subsequently had my fair share of hangovers. It never felt normal though, not me. I didn't really like the stuff. I drank mainly to fit in but after a few years I learned how to fit in and just sip soft drinks. I've never written under the influence since I was in my late teens and it's not a subject I'm drawn to. So, am I not a real writer then?

Well, just as there are writers with a predilection for drinking there are also those who do not imbibe, at least not to excess. The list includes Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Mary McCarthy, Upton Sinclair, Emily Dickinson, Henry Thoreau, Zane Gray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saul Bellow, William Golding, Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, James Michener, Lillian Hellman, Tom Wolfe and Flannery O'Connor.

And yet the romantic notion of the writer persists. Take these two verses from the Scottish singer-songwriter, Fish (Derrick Dick to his parents):

Many’s the time I've been thinking about changing my ways
But when it gets right down to it it's the same drunken haze
I'm serving a sentence to write life's sentences
It's only when I'm out of it I make sense of this

Just a revolutionary with a pseudonym
Just a bar-room dancer on my final fling
Just another writer paying off my dues
Just finding inspiration, well that's my excuse

Marillion'Just For the Record' (Clutching at Straws)

Fish's personal struggle with drink is, of course, quite well documented and not simply because he's a Scot though it has to be said that we Scots as a nation do love to bevvy. You can hear the track here. Well worth a listen.

Myths do not arise de novo, or to put that in plain English, there's no smoke without fire. Maybe there is something to this booze lark.

I found this quote on MySpace: dream of becoming a neurotic writer with a drink problem and no semblance of a real job is coming true! – Rebecca, London

She could be joking – there was very little context to help me decide – but one wonders how much truth there might be behind her statement even if it was being sold to the world as a joke?

In her candid best-selling memoir Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp admits she was attracted to alcohol because her literary heroes all seemed to drink to excess; they were dark and tortured souls, who had to imbibe in order to deal with this vale of tears. This was a woman who spent a day in a wheelchair to document how difficult it was for those with handicaps to navigate public transportation. Fittingly, it was literature that saved her, after twenty years she found inspiration in Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life and sobered up. Charles Deemer in his on-line account, Liquor And Lit, cites similar inspiration:

The hard-drinking American writer was a figure of mythic proportions, and by the time I graduated from UCLA I was eager to join his ranks.

This is one of three causes listed by Donald W. Goodwin in his book in Alcohol and the Writer, that It is expected. The other two are: The hours are good and Writers need inspiration.

If there was a direct correlation between alcohol and writing then all creative writing classes would begin with an introduction to the bottle, "Take x no of glasses of y and then begin to write. Continue to quaff at regular intervals whilst writing is in progress." But it's never that simple.

One of the facts cited by Tom Dardis in his book The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer is that, of the seven American Nobel laureates in literature, four of them – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway – were clearly alcoholic, and a fifth, John Steinbeck, was probably alcoholic. (You can listen to an interview with him here). Yes, it's a fact but is it a significant fact? Fifteen million Americans a year are plagued with alcoholism. Five million of them are women. There are another couple of facts. Dardis points out that similar statistics do not hold true for European writers, suggesting the affiliation between writers and alcohol is a peculiarly American phenomenon (and perhaps one that happened at a certain time as well).

Over to our roving reported Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian-born writer:

I did not become truly alcoholic with an alcoholic consciousness except in America.

I'm speaking of a particular, almost permanent state, in which one is dominated by alcohol, whether during the hours one is drinking or during the hours when one is impatiently waiting to drink, almost as painfully as a drug addict waits for his injection.

If one has never known this experience, it is difficult to understand American life. Not that everyone drinks, in the sense in which my mother used the word, but because it is part of private and public life, of folklore, you might say, as is proved by the large, more or less untranslatable vocabulary, most often in slang, that relates to drink. – Simenon – Leaning to Drink American Style

Simenon says that for twenty years in France he drank without remorse, without seeing anything wrong with it. "In the United States I learned shame. For they are ashamed. Everyone is ashamed. I was ashamed like the rest." He notes a peculiar difference between Americans and the French: "Americans must experience what they write about. French writers work within a tradition." Goodwin also states in his book, presumably paraphrasing Simenon, although this isn't clear: "The American alcoholic stereotype has two choices – abstain or go on a bender. The French alcoholic stereotype does not go on benders, but cannot abstain." Simenon believed that alcohol would kill him but that he could not write without it. It turned out he could. In neither quantity nor quality did his work suffer from abstinence. If alcohol was his muse, it was a dispensable muse.

We'll leave it there today. In the next part we'll look at the actual effects of alcohol on the system and how different writers have used it to aid them in the writing process or to help them recover from it.

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