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Thursday 29 January 2009

What character would you like to be?


250px-SlartBartFast One of the few bonuses that 2008 presented my wife and I was the return of Sky TV. We don't have a satellite disc. We receive our TV channels through cable but when NTL was taken over by Virgin there was a falling out with Sky program providers. Virgin dug their heels in and so we lost all the Sky channels. So, no Lost, Bones, Battlestar Galactica and no Stargate. Ah well. But at the tail end of the year the two kissed and made up and just like that we got all our channels back and a couple of extra ones, SkyARTS1 and SkyARTS2. Very nice. In our old flat we did have Artsworld as it was known then and I loved it even if it didn't have the biggest output.

Anyways, we takes what we gets and we don't complain.

One of the shows is The Book Show, presented by Mariella Frostrup, she of the throaty voice, who I remember from The Little Picture Show back in the nineties. Now The Book Show is a fairly glossy affair and all the guests I've seen have been the big names, the ones whose books you'll find in the supermarkets heavily discounted but still more than I'd care to pay.

That said the programme's still worth a watch. They always do a segment where a famous author shows us round their workspace in fact sometimes these get slipped in as fillers during the day to round up programmes to an hour. I did a blog on that months ago but for some reason it's a subject I never tire of. And the show always ends the same way, with each of that week's guests telling which character from fiction they'd like to be and why. On the whole the choices have not excited me overly much and have all been reasonably predictable – Jane Eyre, James Bond, Mr Darcy – but after one show my wife asked me, "Well, who would you pick?" And I sat and I sat and I sat and do you know I couldn't think of anyone. Well, that's not true. I could think of characters I was like or empathised with but none I'd like to be.

And then it came to me. In a flash. As it were. Slartibartfast!

H2G2_UK_front_cover Slartibartfast, for those out there who have either not heard the radio shows, read the books, seen the TV programmes or sat through the film adaptation is a character in Douglas Adams' 'trilogy in five parts' The Hitch- Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a Magrathean who had just been woken up from a five million year nap when he's introduced in the book.

Slartibartfast is a member of a race who create designer-planets. His favourite part of the job is designing coastlines, the most notable of which were the fjords found on the coast of Norway on planet Earth:

'Did you ever go to a place … I think it was called Norway?'

'No,' said Arthur, 'no, I didn't'

'Pity,' said Slartibartfast, 'that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear of its destruction.'

Why I thought I'd like to be him is that he's very much a backroom boy. He has a job he enjoys and gets on with it. He's a little distracted; at least that's how both Bill Nighy and Richard Vernon play him. (Much I as enjoy Bill Nighy as an actor I actually think Vernon does a better job myself.) Still, after five million plus years I'd expect to be a bit doty.

The thing is, having had time to think about it and taking the whole thing far too seriously when I did, I'm not convinced that Slartibartfast is who I'd like to be. He's more positive that someone like Krapp but I still think he's someone I'd expect to be as opposed to someone I'd like to be So, I went and sat in front of my bookcases and had a think.

i050818ziggy You know, I've read a lot of depressing books in my life. I'm really not drawn to anything remotely feel good. Even the comic books I read. Take Ziggy for example. I love Ziggy. Unusually for me he's an optimistic chappie. But where I relate to him is that life confuses him when it's not actively conspiring against him. That I get. And as I get older – and hence more Slartibartfastian – it seems to be getting worse.

The novels I found my hand reaching for were mostly ones I read many years ago, The Outsider and The Plague by Camus, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Nausea by Jean-Paul Satre, Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Hunger by Knut Hamsum and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and if there is one thing that to a greater or lesser extent the characters share its that they look at life from the outside. As a writer I've always felt apart. Every social situation I get involved in I find I sit back and observe hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive wee bugger, truth.

The only contemporary novel that wound up in my pile was Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and again the protagonist finds herself in a world that doesn't make sense to her.

2945452888_bbee99c9df So, I wasn't any further forward and then I noticed a clump of novels by Richard Brautigan and there it was: The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, to give the book its full title. Yes, that was it. I'd like to be the librarian, the narrator of the book, the hero if you like.

When Slartibartfast first meets Arthur Dent he tells him his name is not important although he does reveal it when pressed at the end of the chapter. The librarian in The Abortion never does and no one, not even the beautiful Vida, the girl "with a Botticellian face and Playboy furniture legs" who becomes his lover, refers to it. That appeals. I always hate with relationships how you feel duty bound to provide a potted history of your life. Vida – and by extension we readers – learns very little about the librarian before she decides to sleep with him and then move in with him. Very 1966.

Essentially the librarian has been a drifter:

'I kicked around a lot: canneries, sawmills, factories. A woman supported me for a couple of years, then she got tired of it and kicked my ass out,' I said. 'It was all pretty complicated before I started working here.'

How he ended up as the librarian was simply that he was in the right place at the right time:

'The fellow who was here before me couldn't stand children. He thought they were going to steal his shoes. I came in here with a book I'd written and while he was writing it down in the Library Contents Ledger, a couple of children came in so he flipped, so I told him that I had better take over the library and he had better do something that didn't involve children. He told me he thought he was cracking up too, and that's how I got this job.'

That did happen to me once – it was a drycleaners and not a library more is the pity – but it pleased me nonetheless. I'd popped in to see a friend, his shop girl hadn't turned up for work and as he was stuck on the front desk and couldn't do any work out back I offered to cover the till. The next thing it became a part-time job, then regular and finally – and we're talking about only a few months – my friend left and I became the manager. A bit like the librarian in The Abortion, all my previous work had been in very different jobs, offices in my case, so this was quite refreshing although eventually I packed it in and went back to another office job purely for the money.

Not all of Brautigan's characters are as laid back as the librarian but that's probably the quality I would long for myself. I'm really not a laid back character. Up tight, that's me. Which makes me wonder why Slartibartfast jumped to my mind because he's not really laid back. He'd found a job that he likes and so when it came to the replacement Earth and he got landed with Africa as opposed to Scandinavia he was a bit miffed about the lack of, for want of another word, "crinkly" bits. So I guess I want to be a laid back backroom boy. Yes, that sounds about right.

Anyway, I've prattled on enough. I'd be interested to hear which character in literature you would like to be and why. This is not a meme by the way. You are under no obligation to pass this on to anyone. It's just a bit of fun for a change.

Monday 26 January 2009

Thinking poetry


Sappho Robert Frost is famously quoted as saying that poetry is metaphor, although I've also seen the quote attributed to Wallace Stevens. The view goes back much farther than that though. For Longinus, the 3rd century Roman critic, the essence of poetry was "metaphor," a word that comes from the Greek, metaphorika, a sort of cart to carry people around, a means of transportation. The poem has to transport us then. The end of the poem should leave us in a different emotional and/or mental state than the one we were in before we read the poem. Metaphors say one thing and mean another which could almost be a definition of what all poetry does.

There are many theories as to how metaphors work but I think the point of view expressed by proponents of Conceptual Metaphor Theory makes most sense when applied to poetry. They argue that "few or even no abstract notions can be talked about without metaphor: there is no direct way of perceiving them and we can only understand them through the filter of directly experienced, concrete notions". It's a fascinating subject.

You may be surprised to learn that for the longest time the prevalent theory as regards language was that metaphor used mechanisms outside the realm of everyday conventional language, i.e. it belonged solely to poets. And, as happens with many theories after they have been lying around for a few years, this theory has came to be taken as law. The word metaphor was defined as a novel or poetic linguistic expression where one or more words for a concept are used outside of its normal conventional meaning to express a similar concept.

One has to wonder how this state of affairs came about. My own opinion is that we think and communicate metaphorically without really thinking about what we are doing. When we give something a name like simile or metaphor, and thus categorise it, it might feel like artifice when we use an expression, to cite Wallace Stevens as an example, "Death is the mother of beauty," and I have no doubt that Stevens considered that expression carefully when writing 'Sunday Morning'. We read that as a poetic metaphor but I'm not convinced that we need that qualifier.

I think a lot of the time we use words – and use them correctly too – without really fully appreciating what we're saying. Let's take as an example, the expression "figurative language" – what does "figurative" mean?

  1. of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, esp. a metaphor; metaphorical; not literal: a figurative expression.
  2. metaphorically so called: His remark was a figurative boomerang.
  3. abounding in or fond of figures of speech: Elizabethan poetry is highly figurative.
  4. representing by means of a figure or likeness, as in drawing or sculpture.
  5. representing by a figure or emblem; emblematic.

Okay, in Chinese we know there exist pictograms, for example, pictogram 木 mu means "tree" and it looks a bit like a stylised tree. Doubling the pictogram 木 mu "tree" produces 林 lin "forest", while combining 日 "sun" and 月 yuè "moon", the two natural sources of light, makes 明 míng "bright". Two trees don't make a clump let alone a wood or a forest and I would've thought that the sun was bright enough without adding the moon to it. But I'm out of my depth here.

I think that we take the shape "figurative" and visualise it the first time we encounter it. Then we look at the context, the words surrounding it, and try and connect what we understand the word to mean to its new setting. So "figurative language" means, to me, words that require images to be understood:

It's a matter of constant adjustment based on the facts we have at our disposal. On its own, "figurative" is like a cog and a cog on its own is next to useless.

Now, remember those 5 definitions for "figurative", there's a word for that – polysemy and, no, I don't have a pretty picture of a parrot to go with it. It, like most "big words" has only one definition:

diversity of meanings

Words are not like numbers. When you try and figure out a sum you expect there to be one right answer. Sentences are more like algebraic equations where differing answers may well arise depending on the values assigned to the various variables. But the relationships between the answer and the various variables will always be the same.

The real issue is when do we know if something is to be taken literally? Let's consider my poem 'The War and After':

The War and After

You vanished in a second.
That was all it took.
I blinked and then
you were gone.

A bird landed where you'd been.
I shooed it away.
A man stopped to
eat his lunch.

I asked him: "Could you move, sir?"
Soon a construction
crew arrived to
erect a

monument but not to you.
A dog came along
and peed on it.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The first line could be 'You disappeared in an instant' or 'All of a sudden you weren't there'. They all amount to the same thing plus or minus something the line I finally settled upon has. To my mind each possibility contains the other two anyway. If you were trying to explain that first line to someone you'd probably try rewording before anything else and the odds are you'd opt for some variation on these.

The title suggests that we're going to be hearing about a particular war and, although that is the case, it's never identified. The same goes for all the characters, 'you', 'I', 'a bird', 'a man', 'a construction crew' and 'a dog'. So, although as far as the narrator goes this is a specific war, the reality is that really this is a figurative war. This could be any war because all wars are the same and all of them have aftermaths. By 'envaguening' the poem its scope is broadened.

So what happens? While the narrator is blinking someone disappears from his line of sight. Is it possible that there is a direct correlation between the blinking and the disappearance? Was the blinker responsible for the disappearance? Of course not, that would be unreasonable. And yet the narrator's subsequent actions suggest that there is. If I hadn't blinked (i.e. taken my attention away from you) you wouldn't have been taken from me. But in what way 'vanished'? Did 'you' disappear of 'your' own free will or were 'you' disappeared? Does it matter?

Not really. Because, despite the narrator's emotional reasoning, the blame rests firmly with the war. You can read the second line in two ways: firstly, that it only took a literal second for the disappearance or all it (the war) took was 'you'. So it doesn't matter. Whether 'you' had had enough and abandoned him or was a casualty of war either way a 'you'-shaped space was left in the narrator's life.

The fact is we cannot simply read this opening stanza literally.

Following that both a bird and a man try and occupy that space but the narrator frees it up. When a construction crew erects a permanent fixture he finds himself powerless to protect that spot. Some time later a dog cocks its leg up against the newly erected monument.

Here events move progressively through three stages. I considered making the bird a dove because of the obvious symbolism. If I'd said 'dove' then I could be accused of pointing my readers in a specific direction but it's enough to present the image of a bird landing to suggest the onset of peace, likewise a man stopping outside to eat his lunch. Of course birds don't flee a war zone but they do keep their distance. The thing is, at first the narrator can chase the bird away with ease; the man needs to be reasoned with (one has to assume that the poem doesn't contain the whole conversation) but the statue proves to be immovable. Whether he tries to stop the construction crew is not revealed because the end result is all that's important.

When someone dies it's not that uncommon to preserve their room and their things. Why? They're not going to magically reappear. And it's not that unusual for people to put up a plaque and leave flowers on the pavement when a loved one is killed in a road accident. So the narrator keeping watch over the last place they saw 'you' isn't so unreasonable even if it is futile. But to what end?

The spot is a constant reminder of his loss and of his negligence. Had he a lock of hair or some other token then he might not punish himself in this way. But the war has left him nothing. It's not the spot on the ground that he is protecting so much as it is the nothingness above it.

The dog at the end is another creature that could easily have been chased away but there's no point once the monument is in situ. There's no real evidence that the narrator is even there watching this desecration at this point. If he is then the image is perhaps even more powerful. To the narrator's mind the erection of the monument was the desecration. We don't learn what the monument is there to commemorate, possibly the soldiers who died in the war but it doesn't even serve as a headstone for the 'you' that vanished. Again, if it had been to commemorate lives lost, would I not have called it a memorial? Perhaps it’s a statue of the country's new leader. Perhaps he's to blame for the war in which 'you' was lost. Now wouldn't that be a slap in the face of the narrator?

The big question is: when do you know that something is literal and when not? Take the dog at the end. Dogs don't have a great many intentions in this life. It's their intent to eat, get rid of what they've eat, sleep and, if possible, breed. Most other things, like petting and pampering, are a bonus and not really a part of the canine hierarchy of needs if one of those exists. Maybe Pavlov did one. The dog is not defiling anything. It's simply relieving itself as dogs do. In other words it doesn't mean anything, nothing significant. It's up to the reader to imbue it with significance because the narrator stops a line short and makes no comment.

Lastly, there are things we accept when reading without any question, the concept of the omniscient narrator for example. So, who is this poem addressed to? If the 'you' is dead then is this a prayer? If they have simply left then with the advent of peace perhaps the narrator might have some reason to hope. This could actually be a letter.

The bottom line is that everything in this poem can be read both literally and figuratively. In fact you have to. This, to my mind, is good poetry where a poet makes his words work overtime. That said you have to know where to draw the line. There will be those who might have written 'instant' instead of 'second' or 'paused' instead of 'stopped' and, in the past, I've driven myself mad swapping synonyms. I'm nowhere near as obsessive these days.

Most people would not regard my poetry as ambiguous but I'm not sure that it's possible to write anything the slightest bit poetic that isn't open to interpretation.

I started off mentioning Conceptual Metaphor Theory and I'd like to return to it to finish. In her essay on the subject, from which I quoted earlier, Alice Deignan of the University of Leeds has this to say:

For proponents of Conceptual Metaphor Theory, thought has primacy over language. The theory was not intended to account for language in use, which is merely the surface manifestation of more important phenomena.

I read over these two sentences several times. I first read them months ago and they've been mulling around in my head ever since. I've always considered language, especially written language, to be very cumbersome. I find it very hard to translate what I'm thinking into words for some poor bugger to have to come along and try and convert back into thoughts. Thought is therefore the beginning and end of poetry. Poetry, I therefore conclude, should not be read, out loud or to oneself, but thought about. Of course poetry has to be read, out loud or to oneself (that is unavoidable), but the process doesn't end there.

I've been trying to find the right words to say why I object to poetry readings and I think that this is it, I'm not allowed time to think before I'm being presented with another one to chew on. As a social thing, getting to meet and socialise with other poets, I'm sure they're fine but I don't think anything can beat sitting on your own in your quiet corner, just you, the poem and your imagination.

The lexicographer collects examples of usage and groups them according to related uses and senses. We see that above with the word "figurative" and all the definitions are reasonable. In my poem the metaphor we're trying to figure out is never explicitly named. It is the negative space where 'you' last stood; 'where you'd been' is the closest I get to it pinning it down. If we had a dictionary of metaphors and looked up dove the top definition would likely be: symbol of peace and who would argue with that? But that is a very obvious metaphor. But what is the narrator feeling in the poem? Is it survivor guilt or does he have abandonment issues? The thing I've noticed myself about feelings is that I very rarely feel one thing without their being some touch of other emotions in there. When my mother died I was sad, of course I was sad, but I was so many other things. 'Sad' somehow feels insufficient.

I can, of course, tell you what inspired the poem. Regular readers of this blog will know already that it was written in response to a post by Jasmin Causevic, 'In the blink of an eye' but it was not about what he wrote; it was merely sparked off by the metaphor 'in the blink of an eye'. As for what the poem means … you're on your own there. All I can say is that twenty years on this little poem suddenly makes so much more sense:


It is true that every
seven years we change.

Turning fourteen I started
thinking poetry.

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

15 December 1988

Thursday 22 January 2009

No one belongs here more than you


764-1 The first thing I knew about Miranda July, even before I learned her name, was that she owned a fridge only I thought it was a whiteboard till she told me it wasn’t. Very shortly after that I learned that she owned a cooker and a white hand which led me to believe that the rest of her was probably white too, a fact I have since confirmed, at least the bits of her I have seen without clothes on have been white and one can reasonably assume from that that her skin colour is much the same all over. After learning those first three things I discovered she was an author. I had already seen evidence that she could write, legibly – perhaps I should have mentioned that earlier – but lots of people who can write never find they have enough to say about life to fill a 201 page book with it. She had and it was available in two colours, yellow and pink. I’ve since discovered there’s a green variety out there too. Eventually I bought the pink variety (because it was cheap) and read it over the course of a rather depressing couple of weeks. Some people might tell you the book is unputdownable but it is not. It is a book that you want to pick up again, at least I did, and I might have read it in a couple of sittings had I been feeling better, but we’ll never know now.

Perhaps I should explain about the fridge.

A while ago, as one does, I stumbled across a website. Perhaps I should first say that there are so many websites on the go that to come up with a unique-looking one deserves a round of applause. And that was what caught my eye about this website. It was handwritten. All of it. Here are the first two screens.




Now, be honest, would that not pique your curiosity? I remember showing it to my wife and saying: “Hey, look at this,” or something of that ilk.

Eventually the truth comes out as these things do and this was nothing more than a marketing ploy but I didn’t mind too much because I’d been entertained for five minutes. That said I still never bought the book. So, although she may or may not have been a decent enough writer, I had also determined she wasn’t, at least in my case, the most effective marketer.

Jump forward about a year and I read a short story by Ani Smith about someone wanting to have sex with someone else called Miranda July. Of course by this time I had completely forgotten about the fridge and I just thought: What a cool name – I wonder if she made it up? And so I googled her and, what do you know, I came across that damn cooker again. You see, she’d been using the fridge as a whiteboard but it was taking her twenty minutes to clean the thing between ‘screens’ and so wisely she switched to her cooker which, although the surface area was much smaller, could at least be wiped with ease.




Now, since that time I’ve read a lot more of Ani’s stuff and these days I’d take a story like that with a pinch of salt but at the time if I’m honest I was probably half-curious to see what kind of woman she fancied. What I found was a woman I’m not sure I could fancy but one that certainly deserved further investigation and, let’s face it, looks are neither here nor there really.

The New York Times movie section had this to say about her recently:

In the indie universe, Miranda July is a polarizing force. To her near-fanatical followers, she is the undisputed high priestess of the DIY art revolution—a bold, multitalented 33-year-old sprite with a refreshing, almost childlike sincerity who seems to have sprung fully formed from the evergreen forests of Portland, Oregon.

And it goes on about her art projects and her film and finally mentions the book before skipping right over it. But it did say something about what’s made her the kind of person she is today:

Much of her childhood was spent listening to the rants of “borderline crazy writers,” along with disturbing seventies-style confessions from both parents about their personal and marital challenges. “I wasn’t neglected at all, but my parents didn’t have the best boundaries in the world,” says July, who dropped out of college at 20 and fled to Oregon. “I was privy to pretty much everything about their lives.” She pauses. “I think that’s definitely where my desire to be the one who understands comes from.”

We are what we eat, so my mother always told me, so I guess we are what we’re force-fed too. That single paragraph goes so far towards an understanding of July’s stories which are both voyeuristic and confessional, often both at the same time. Those of a sensitive nature may want to stop reading here, at least those of you who don’t like talking about sex, because there is a lot of sex in and around these stories. That said it’s a far cry from either erotica or pornography; sex is a part of life and July includes it often quite dispassionately, if truth be told.

Some of the stories are very short, slices of life – ‘story fragments’ one reviewer called them (maybe they’d never heard of flash fiction) – and it’s ‘The Moves’, one of the shortest at only a page and a half, that is the most striking. In it a daughter tells of her dying father passing on to her his secret hand moves for bringing a woman to orgasm. I get it. Knowledge is a precious commodity. What’s he going to do, write a book? This goes back to the old oral traditions. You have something to pass on to future generations, then you tell ‘em about it and you show ‘em what to do. The girl in the story takes the knowledge in the spirit in which it is given. She is not attracted to women and so can’t envision needing the knowledge herself but she is open enough to imagine that her daughter – if she ever has one – might turn out to be gay and the information would be of benefit to her. Irrespective of that one could still see these instructions being passed down from generation to generation till needed. It’s particularly interesting that she doesn’t talk about passing these onto a son.

Someone has made a wee film based on the story and posted it at YouTube. It’s an interesting approach to the subject.

Not all the stories are about sex. It crops up if and when it should and disappears from the page easily enough. She is certainly a love-her-or-loathe-her kind of writer. Let me illustrate this with two reviews culled from Amazon:

By W. Etter "kind of a big deal" (portland, or)

it's hard to believe all the tragic, tender, hilarious, moments in this book came from one author. i want a "being john malkovich" door into miranda july's mind. i cannot say enough about this book. i had to give it a hug when i was done.

i want everyone i love to read it. i want the mailman to read it. i want to stand in front of the display at powell's and tell people they don't need to look any further - this is the book they've been waiting for. we all have. thank you miranda july.

By budababy (Los Angeles, CA, USA)

I seem to be the only person who didn't like this book. I didn't like it. A lot. In fact, it is the first book I have ever returned to Amazon, just because I disliked it so much. The writer is clearly very intelligent, but she has such smug disdain for her less intelligent narrators and characters. The arrogance was too much for me. Great for her to be published in the best mags and win awards. You all can have her stories. I can't take them.

July is a modern storyteller and doesn’t burden her readers with a lot of details and so, if you miss a line or two, you might have missed a key point. She’s also one of those storytellers who often gets labelled ‘quirky’, a description one needs to approach with caution because it can often mean ‘doesn’t fit anywhere else’. I’ve also heard her called ‘the voice of a generation’, which one I’m not sure. I think X and Y have been used up so I suppose she must be Z and, yes, I’m being facetious.

The people contained within these sixteen stories are not what one might call ‘fully integrated members of society’. They exist on the fringes, some physically, most mentally. Some reach out to the world, others stare at it wonderingly.

‘The Boy from Lam Kien’ opens with these lines:

I took twenty-seven steps and then I stopped. Next to the juniper bush. Lam Kien Beauty Salon was before me, and my front door was behind me. It’s not agoraphobia, because I am not actually afraid of leaving the house. The fear hits about twenty-seven steps away from the house, right about the juniper bush.

What kind of woman is this? July gives us a brief tour of this woman’s house. How she does this is quite clever. A young boy emerges from the beauty salon and the two strike up an awkward conversation. He asks to see her room and she lets him and it is though the boy’s innocent eyes we now perceive the woman. In the bedroom, as kids do, he flops down on her bed and wants to know why she doesn’t have bunk beds.

You should get bunk beds, then you would have more room, he said while pretending to be sucked down into the narrow space between the bed and the wall.

What would I do with more room?

He now stood, impossibly, between the bed and the wall. A place I had never thought to clean.

You don’t want bunk beds?

Well, I just don’t see the need for them.

You can have a friend spend the night.

But this bed is so big, they can sleep in here with me?

He gave me a long, strange stare, and my mind bent like a spoon. Why would anyone want to sleep in the bed with me when they could have their own bunk, like on a ship?

And in this way the boy goes through the place commenting on her life. Eventually he decides it’s time to go and leaves without thinking to say goodbye. I had to reread this one because I got to the end and wondered what had happened. There is something quite magic about this little story. I mean magic as in conjuring. July has you looking one place when all the action is somewhere else. She describes in detail how the boy picks up and carries a book and so you almost forget what the book was about.

Let’s mention a few of the other stories.

In the story ‘Birthmark’, we are presented with a young woman's description of life with – and (strangely enough) worse, without – a facial birthmark. Here is where July's sense of empathy and contradiction shine through:

Have you ever wanted something very badly, then gotten it? Then you know that winning is many things, but it is never the thing you thought it would be. Poor people who win the lottery do not become rich people. They become poor people who won the lottery. She was a very beautiful person who was missing something very ugly.

Happiness is getting everything you ever wanted in this life. Okay, maybe not everything but everyone has something that they feel if they had it (or didn’t have it) that would be the one thing that would make all the other minor inconveniences life throws at us bearable. This could be an allegory. It could also be a fairytale.

In ‘Swim Team’ a woman volunteers to coach a swimming team – made up of old people – in her apartment and without the aid of water (although she does provide them with bowls when they need to practice breathing exercises!)

I was the kind of coach who stands by the side of the pool instead of getting in, but I was busy every moment. If I can say this without being immodest, I was instead of the water.

In ‘This Person’ a woman discovers her life has been just a rehearsal when she finds ‘a long rambling phone message in which every person this person has ever known is talking on a speakerphone and they are all saying, You have passed the test, it was all just a test.’

While in the tale 'Something That Needs Nothing', the female protagonist, defined by a deep, unrequited love for her best girlfriend from school, finally achieves the sexual attention she craves – but only for a week, and only when she wears a plastic wig, dresses like a stripper and pretends to be someone else.

On the whole this is a charming book. It is not without its faults and the main one is that you feel that each character is really a proxy for the one true character who is definitely a female and quite probably July herself. Her response to this? “The stories aren't technically autobiographical, but in an emotional sense, they are,” she’s reported to have said. Personally that didn’t trouble me. I’m sure if I’d come across the stories one at a time in the magazines in which they were originally published such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's I’d have been delighted with it. Some of the stories were funny, some sad and one or two nothing less than tragic. And, yes, a few tried too hard. That’s the thing about ‘quirky’ – once you realise you are and start trying to be well that’s never quite the same.

Her characters are nameless and placeless, even the protagonists with names and the places we’re told about. The names don’t matter and the places are unimportant. Some of it is clearly small town America. Most of it would work in Saltcoats or Milton Keynes.

One thing you need to be careful about here and that is not to judge the collection by the state of its characters most of which are lacking something. This book is not perfect but perfection lacks character if you ask me.


miranda070521_198 Miranda July is a filmmaker, writer, and performing artist. Her work has been presented at sites such as The Kitchen, the Guggenheim Museum, and in two Whitney Biennials. She wrote, directed, and starred in her first feature-length film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, which received a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. July's short fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's, and Zoetrope. No One Belongs Here More Than You has won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She has released two albums on the record label Kill Rock Stars. Raised in Berkeley, California, she lives in Los Angeles.

Oh, and her real name is actually Miranda Grossinger.

Monday 19 January 2009

Taking a thought for a walk


rubber-stamp-approved-thumb1391108 I've read that there are two types of literature: one that takes the reader away from the mundanities of everyday life on a journey of imagination; the other that probes the complexities of human psyche and experience in such a deep way that it makes the reader view his or her own life in a different way. I think there might be a more important reason: validation.

We all think we're alone, that no one understands us, and in many ways that is true, we are all one of those islands Donne talked about. In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins, who was playing author C S Lewis, explained to a student on a train, "We read so know we are not alone". I'm pretty sure Lewis said that, though perhaps not on a train, but if he didn’t then all credit to William Nicholson, the scriptwriter, for making sure those lines got incorporated in the film because they had quite an impact on me. Talking about impacts, here are a few more:

  • I had a man, a fellow poet as it happens, take one of my poems and pin it to the cork board beside his desk because I had found the words that explained why he wrote.
  • A girl I used to work with kept a copy of one of my poems which she referred to as "the Barry poem" from then on because it expressed exactly how she felt about this particular guy. I even think of it as "the Barry poem" nowadays. I'd have to look it up to find out its proper title.
  • Another girl I worked with (different job) wanted to leave one of my short stories in her loo so people could read it at their convenience (pun intended).
  • A woman I knew once – really I knew her daughters better – asked to read some of my poems. The collection came back with one missing. When I quizzed her all she would say was that it had put into words something she'd felt for years but she wouldn't tell me what. I have no idea which poem it was.
  • Charlie, a fellow I once worked with took a collection of my short stories on holiday and sat and read them out to his friends. One guy said to him: "How does this man know how I feel?" When I asked him which story it was he couldn't remember. Charlie himself had to wipe tears from his eyes when he read the poem I wrote about my mother.

Writing is a distillation of aspects of life into words. Words facilitate understanding. They stop us having to rely on feeling that something is right; words try and explain to us why it is. In all of the five instances cited, my writing somehow validated the feelings and actions of my readers; the world made a little more sense afterwards. It is okay to be the way I am, they could now say, because I am not alone, someone else understands and now I do too.

I have lived a quiet life. Mostly that's been by choice even though few opportunities for excitement have presented themselves to me. I write about the same thing over and over again: people. People fascinate me more than anything else. I don't much care about politics or ecology or the state of the economy. I could have been a scientist, the kind of guy who gets to watch another guy in an empty room for hours on end. Okay a girl in an empty room. Unless that room was the Big Brother house. And even then, with the sound down, I'm actually quite content to watch that too. And most of the time it's not what they're doing that interests me but what they might do: Man is a storehouse of potentiality.

Books are the same. What's going to happen next? It's what I enjoy so much about writing. It's all about filling up that white page. I saw someone interviewed recently – can't think who it was although I suspect it was Stephen Fry – who when asked which of the books he'd written was his favourite he said: "My next one." His flippancy aside I get it. No one is interested in jigsaw pieces that they've fitted together. All we care about is rooting through the pile to see what we can do to reduce that empty space in between. Every bit we add on makes the rest make more sense.

Reading is like that for me. I'm looking for the bits and pieces that other people have written that I can incorporate into my personal ethos, that enable me to make more sense out of me. The first one I recognised as such was contained in Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney'. I extracted its essence and it became mine. It's my poem now. But that's not so unusual. We all have poems and songs and films that we connect with in a special way.

One of the words I think I hate more than all the others is 'normal'. Normal is such a conditional thing. H2O is normally a liquid unless it's very hot or very cold whereupon it turns into steam or ice. There is no 'normal' state for H2O because 'normal' is not an absolute. And yet I'm desperately interested in what 'normal' might be. When I was growing up I did certain things, most of which were deemed 'normal'. I can remember my mother saying to my dad: "He's just a boy, Jimmy," – my dad was also called Jimmy – and she's talking about me; there were things, even bad things, that it was deemed 'normal' for me to get up to. They even accepted my writing and I can imagine my mother saying: "It's just a phase he's going through," only it wasn't. After a while I should have grown out of it. That would have been 'normal'. And yet online I have met so many people who, like me, have kept on writing since childhood. Of course that was 'normal' for us and I think I hate that expression more that I hate the word 'normal'. It's a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card. Ah, but you segetoutofjailcce, it's normal for me to spend 17 hours sitting in front of a PC every day. Of course. Yes, quite, quite normal.

Valid used to mean healthy a long time ago. Healthy is normal. It's not normal to have pains in my shoulder and wrist. Pain though is normal, a normal response to things not being right. I don't need a doctor to tell me why I have pains in my shoulder and wrist, it's too much time – and we're talking years here – in front of a computer or typewriter. But that's natural if you're a writer. So, what if I wasn't a writer? I guess I'd end up with different pains because it's natural I find for people to overdo things.

Excess is a historical phenomenon; drunks and overeaters were disparaged in Ancient Greece. More recently we have had the rise of the “modern” addictions: gambling, sex and computer gaming. Even reading Harry Potter books has been linked to addiction. There are those that argue that 'addiction' is too strong a word, many of these are merely habits, albeit bad habits.

So what's writing?

My dad told me that a habit was something that people did that if they were asked to do without it they would miss it. What he was implying was that one would go through withdrawal symptoms. So is a habit an addiction-lite? Our lives are made up of habits. Almost everything we do involves the use of habitual behaviour. Think about it. You get up in the morning and use habits to get ready to start the day. Otherwise, you would have to relearn everything you do – combing your hair, brushing your teeth, dressing, working the toaster, and even pouring a cup of coffee.

My dad was right though. A habit is an activity that is acquired, done frequently, done automatically, and difficult to stop. Nail biting would be a good example. It is an acquired habit. And it can be hard to quit. That's not the voice of experience talking here.

So, how long does it take for something to become a habit? As you would expect, since our 'normals' are all different, there's no simple answer but simple repetitive tasks require a timeframe of approximately 21 days to condition. Here is a familiar example: When you walk into your bedroom you "automatically" reach for the light switch on the left side as you enter. Then you move to a new home where the light switch is located on the right side as you enter. You'll find that it will take you about 21 days to stop reaching for that light switch on the left side. You will also find this 21 day "benchmark" to be the time your new house will start feeling "like home". Most studies tend to opt for a month to be on the safe side.

I've talked before about what writing is to me, a natural response to events going on around me, ergo a habit. If I don't write I feel there is something missing. And isn't that what a habit is? But I didn't always write. It was something I acquired on the way and now I wouldn't know what to do without it. Not that I would want to.

The figure that's floating around for breaking a habit is 6 weeks. And yet I've been unable to write for periods far in excess of that and returned to writing as naturally as a duck returns to water. This is where the difference is I suspect. A duck is designed to swim. It wouldn't die if it didn't and I suppose there are plenty of ducks who never go near a pond. I wonder if they miss it.

The interesting thing about writing is that, in common with any number of bad habits, there are side effects. After a few hours it hurts to write and, now that I've been doing it for thirty years, it doesn't even take a few hours anymore, I hurt before I even sit down to write and yet, like the habitué that I am I keep on anyway.

I started this ramble by talking about validation and I guess that's where we've ended up. If there's one thing habitués and addicts have in common is the need to try and try and vindicate (that's the dark side of 'validate') they way they are and so I associate with people who are like me who reassure me and occasionally pat me on the back.

I've always held the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that I am broken. I suspect that's what life does, takes a perfectly healthy psyche and breaks it over time. And we're led to believe that broken things are bad, unnatural. In my experience broken things can usually be adapted to become useful again and serve a different purpose from the one for which they were originally designed. A writer serves a useful purpose. It may not be something everyone does but if there weren't broken people writing then what would the broken people who like to read do?

I have no answers to any of this stuff. I just do what writers do. I took a thought for a walk and this is where I ended up.

Thursday 15 January 2009

When is enough enough?

I've always been a bit of a collector. It probably started with bubblegum cards. I can still remember them from primary school. There were World War II cards and the American Civil war and I remember The Man from Uncle and Captain Scarlet, then there was Star Trek, Cadbury's 'Dangerous Animals' and the ones you used to get with Brooke Bond Tea. Oh, and the ones from sweet cigarettes too. I had them all.

And then there was my stamp collection, my coin collection followed by Matchbox cars, rocks, shells, fossils, comics and bullets. And then I discovered music. Oh boy! Books came last for me. I was sixteen. This doesn't mean I never read before then but from the age of sixteen I started to amass books beginning with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and I still own that original copy; it cost me 35p.

I read a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time. I liked the idea of having a collection although I never did get round to The Gulag Archipelago, the only major work by him I haven't read; it's awfully thick. Asimov was the next author I took a real shine too and I've still got a whean of stuff by him. As I recall I started with I, Robot and moved on from there. He has written a lot of stuff though and there's no way I'd ever be able to collect everything he's written.

It is surprising how little some famous authors have actually published. I could hold everything Larkin wrote in one hand and that probably includes all his jazz reviews, at least the collected reviews. I do own all of Beckett's work, everything that made it into book form in any case. I think there a few scraps out there that were never collected but don't quote me on that.

I'm a Beckett scholar so I'm happy to read works in progress or half-finished stuff because I'm interested in the process as well as the end product. As regards most other authors, I really only want to see a fair selection of what they saw fit to publish. The thing about some of Beckett's works is that they were published under … duress is probably too strong a word but he was put under pressure to put out stuff before he was ready. Indeed he published stuff in his lifetime that he really didn't want to put out there ever. And I've read all of that too. I've read many of his letters. I probably would read his laundry lists if someone saw fit to release them.

I'm reminded of the artist David Hockney who discovered that people were going through his bins and stealing bits of art he had thrown out to sell as 'genuine' Hockney. Of course what they salvaged was genuine - that's not the issue - but he considered it sub-standard. So he started putting dirty great crosses through the drawings and they still went for them, framed them up and flogged them. Finally he started ripping them up.

One might argue that a poor piece of writing by someone like Beckett or a scribble by Hockney would be better than most of us would do on our best day and that probably is true but who should decide when a work is finished? Beckett was extremely self-critical and was never truly happy with anything he'd written. Should we simply pooh-pooh that? Or what about Kafka's request to destroy his writing on his death? It never happened and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Would that have been so bad? You never miss what you never had. So I'm told.

I collect music by Tangerine Dream. I think I've about 60 albums now. It's more than the last time I wrote but I can't be bothered counting again. But there are loads I've not got. Apart from a few of the early albums like Tangram or Stratosfear you could put most of them on and I wouldn't be able to tell you which one we were listening to; they do all get very samey after a while, especially the later stuff. So, why do I keep buying them? What am I hoping to hear? Or am I collecting simply for the sake of it?

It's the same with Mike Oldfield. I've got everything he's ever released post-Tubular Bells. I've even got a bootleg of The Orchestral Hergest Ridge and I've heard that awful hippy- esque album he released before Tubular Bells. Oh, and talking about Tubular Bells, I think I've heard at least five versions of the original score released by him and there's really nothing much to distinguish one from another. I didn't even know that John Cleese did the 2003 narration till I looked it up just now.

The point I'm trying to make here is that I think most authors – and I include myself in this list – only have a fixed amount to say about the world. One only has to look at all the poems I've written about truth to get my point. What more could I possibly have to add? And yet I still find myself mulling over the same old questions. It's one of the benchmarks I use to assess my level of depression. If I'm spending too much time pondering the imponderable then I've usually moved up to a capital D.

There is a challenge, of course, to say that you've read everything by a single author. But to say I've read and understood everything by a certain author, ah well. I cannot make that claim as regards Beckett. I can't even say that about Brautigan and I've just finished the last two novels that I'd been saving plus I've read his daughter's biography. So, am I any closer to understanding him? I don’t think so. I really didn't need to read those last two novels. I knew before I started that they weren't his best work. So why read them? Really, if I'm honest, just to say I have.

I was never in the Boy Scouts or anything like that growing up but I did like the idea of getting merit badges. Now I've got my Beckett and Brautigan badges. I've got my Webern badge and my Pink Floyd badge too. I don't have my Larkin badge though because I've not read all his jazz reviews.

I'm nowhere near as bad as I used to be but it would please me no end if I had a guest and they mentioned an interest in some composer and I could stick a CD on for them. As for authors, forget it, too many of the buggers to hope to make a similar offer. Part of the reason for that is that I have much wider musical tastes than I have literary tastes. If I read a book by an author these days it has to be an extraordinary read for me to seek out another book by them.

That said, I always make sure my daughter has the next Douglas Coupland to add to her collection and she has more Tori Amos that anyone in a right mind would ever want to listen to, so I guess I'm living out my need to collect things vicariously through her. The same goes for Carrie with her Leonard Cohen and Jeanette Winterson. I still like sets, collections. My wall of CDs pleases me no end even if I never listened to another one, just the look of them, like little volumes, row upon row of them.

But the question I really want to ask, because I don’t have an answer, is what is it about us that can't say enough is enough? How many of you when they discover an author that excites them will work their way through their entire canon as if that's a way of showing people how much they rank that particular writer, a kind of award.

I wonder what Beckett would think about me going to such trouble to own copies of his writing as well as DVDs and CDs covering his radio, stage and film work? He'd probably say I'd more money than sense. And he'd probably be right.

Monday 12 January 2009

Inspiration is a good idea

I don't seek, I find – Pablo Picasso

There are far too many words, don't you think, that we use without really being able to define or at the very least without being able to define easily? Love is one. Inspiration is another. It's easy enough to provide dictionary definitions of these words – a kid of five can tell you what 'to be in love' means – but not until they have been in love themselves will that mean anything to them.

In the past I have been very flippant when answering the question 'What is inspiration?' Inspiration is nothing more than a good idea is usually my pat answer; you don't have to wait for a good idea to start writing, any old idea will do and maybe you can turn it into a good idea or at least a workable idea. I'm not the only one to think this. This is what the film director Pawel Pawlikowski had to say on the subject:

One thing you develop with age and experience is an intuition for a good idea: something strikes a chord with you and it resonates. At any given time I'll have four or five ideas, usually half-baked, but I'll juggle them around and write story outlines until one of them stands out. Inspiration is an inchoate process that cannot really be legislated.

You don't see plumbers and doctors sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. I can just see me on the bus as it grinds to a halt: "Oy, mate, what's up then?" "Sorry, son, just ran out of inspiration. Give us five minutes and I'll see what I can do to motivate myself." No, they have a clear idea what they have to do and how it's going to be achieved.

We have glamorised inspiration and made it into something it is not.

I've seen a lot of sites where they list things you can do to help inspire yourself from flicking through the phonebook to having a fag and staring out of the window. I've tried many of them over the years and frankly none of them have really worked for me. I used to believe that 'inspiration' only happened under specific conditions, like perspiration or constipation. I tend to view these things people try like I view a lot of the weird diets that come into fashion every now and then, Mars Bar diets and the like. If you want to lose weight then stop pussyfooting around and stop eating so much … oh, and a bit of exercise wouldn't go amiss either.

I'm curious though where the word 'inspire' came from. Okay, dictionary-time:

[Origin: 1300–50; ME inspiren < L inspīrāre to breathe upon or into, equiv. to in- IN-2 + spīrāre to breathe ]

So, was no one inspired prior to 1300 then? As soon as I read that, I immediately thought about the scripture:

God created man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life. (Gen 2:7)

Now my Hebrew leaves a lot to be desired so if there are any Hebrew scholars reading this and I'm making a fool of myself then just leave me be, eh? Inspiration is often prefixed by the adjective 'divine' but I'm not suggesting that we look heavenward for the source. The word has been secularised for too long for that.

The thing I find about so many words is that few of them have hard and fast definitions. Take a hammer. We all know what a hammer is. Most of us will own a hammer. But what is a hammer – tool for hitting things? That's right but that definition really feels inadequate doesn't it?

But 'breathe' and 'into' really aren't that difficult to define taken separately; combined now that is a different ball game. If I breathe into a toilet roll what good does it do? If it's got one of those machines doctor's use to test how strong your breath is then fine but if it's just a plain ol' toilet roll then you're wasting your breath. So, breathing into must have a greater significance than literally breathing into an object. Secondly, when we use the word 'inspire' generally we end up referring to abstract things or inanimate objects, things that are incapable of breathing at all.

Perhaps if we look at the synonyms one might use in place of 'inspire' it might help us to understand what someone means when they say that they have been inspired by something.

affect, animate, arouse, be responsible for, carry, cause, commove, elate, embolden, endue, enkindle, enliven, exalt, excite, exhilarate, fire up, galvanize, get, give impetus, give one an idea, give rise to, hearten, imbue, impress, infect, inflame, influence, inform, infuse, inspirit, instil, invigorate, motivate, occasion, produce, provoke, quicken, reassure, set up, spark, spur, start off, stir, strike, sway, touch, trigger, urge, work up

To my mind all of these suggest a catalyst. The chemical definition is still the clearest as far as I'm concerned:

A substance that starts or speeds up a chemical reaction while undergoing no permanent change itself.

What has inspired me in the past? Loads of things, sunsets even, but mostly I find it's abstract things, emotional situations and language itself that get me thinking. Hmmm. I had to stop and think there if what I'd written was what I'd meant. And I think it is. What I understand as 'inspiration' is really an emotional reaction to something that provokes an intellectual response. Of course I'm talking here in creative terms and I don't see that any creative endeavour cannot be looked on as intellectual or at least cerebral. Then again since meaning is at the core of my art you'd think I'd come up with a definition like that. Let's consider a specific instance.

The last thing I can remember that inspired me was a blog post by Jasko on Jasmin's Heart. I sat down as soon as I'd finished reading it and wrote a poem there and then. The blog entry was not affected by my decision to write nor has it been altered in any way once the poem had been completed (as in a catalyst); Jasko was affected once I told him but only because I told him. That said I'm not really interested in what inspired me as how I was affected. Here, for the record, are the two lines that hit me:

In the blink of an eye anything we consider for granted could be easily turned into dust. And that’s the scariest thing about our reality.

This is a particularly interesting example because the story was about the effects of war. War doesn't interest me. I don't read books on war. I don't seek out war films or watch documentaries about all of the conflicts and skirmishes that are always on the go somewhere around the globe. I did play 'soldiers' as a kid but I grew out of all that quickly enough. I look at war quite dispassionately probably because I've never been involved in one. I actually had to go back just now and reread the entry because all that remains of it for me is the image of someone disappearing "in the blink of an eye." I couldn't actually remember what the post was about. You see, it was the idea of someone's world changing in an instant … everything. That I could relate to. That I'd been through. For me the war in the poem I wrote is really metaphorical.

Here's the poem I wrote:

The War and After

You vanished in a second.
That was all it took.
I blinked and then
you were gone.

A bird landed where you'd been.
I shooed it away.
A man stopped to
eat his lunch.

I asked him: "Could you move, sir?"
Soon a construction
crew arrived to
erect a

monument but not to you.
A dog came along
and peed on it.

If there was a single event in my life, if one of my parents had walked out on us one day and had never been seen again, then it would be easier to say, "Hey, here's the correlation," but there has been no event like that. There have however been an accumulation of occasions in my life, people who have left and people whom I have left. The artist Cornelia Parker describes it as "a microscopic jigsaw puzzle, tiny points of stimulus accumulated over time come together in an instant, making you think you have had an idea that came from nowhere." Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, says that he gets "a feeling that all the stars are aligned and suddenly reality shifts and embraces something that feels eternal. You look out from a moment like that and everything is as it should be." And for years hasn't Man looked up at the stars and seen shapes where all they really see are specks of light?

Last night in fact I had a dream where an old girlfriend dumped me which is interesting because we actually simply drifted apart. Of course, I'm not alone in that but perhaps I am more sensitive in this area than most. Well, actually there's no perhaps about it, I am. This brings to mind something the singer Martha Wainwright said:

I got my first real burst of inspiration after my father had a child with someone and I found out they weren't going to stay together. Suddenly life had become larger and more complicated, but in a positive way because now there was something to talk about. That was when I wrote my first song.

Or what about this quote from poet Andrew Motion:

When I was 17 my mother had a serious accident and eventually died; the resonances of it still continue with me very powerfully today. It is the most significant thing that has inspired me in my life and work and has undoubtedly shaped the way I think.

There are certain areas in which all of us are sensitive. Why do you think I keep writing so many poems about truth? Why did I turn truth into a character in my novel? (NB: rhetorical questions). Simple answer: I don't understand truth and I hate not understanding something as fundamental as that. But that's me. When I read something like Jasko's post I look for the truth in it. That's what jumped out at me. I guess that's why I couldn’t remember the rest of his post.

If the word "inspiration" is to have any meaning,' T S Eliot wrote, 'it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something that he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him.' When I read those two sentences in Jasko's article it wasn't that I didn't understand them in context. I did. When taken out of context, as so many things that have inspired me have been, they were a problem to solve, "the microscopic jigsaw puzzle" Cornelia Parker was on about. How can these two sentences combine with what I believe to be true about the universe or can they even expand it?

All of this brings me back to the chemical reaction I spoke about earlier. Let's simplify it. There are cat people and there are dog people. I'm a cat person. My mother took in strays but I can't have one where I live. Every cat I see in the street I'm drawn to. I'll go out of my way to talk to them and pet them if given half a chance; the more I get to interact with the creature the more uplifted I am. By extension I like cat figurines and cat art and cartoon cats and so on. I have a house full of Garfields. I like anything that rekindles that feeling. Ah, yes. Good word. Rekindle suggests breathe new life into. And enkindle was one of the synonyms in the list above.

Let me address the idea of rekindling for a moment. How many of us, when we have found inspiration under certain circumstances, has tried to replicate it only to fall flat on our faces? Has the science let us down? Inspiration is like a match. You strike it and it provides you with a few seconds of fire. And then it is gone. That match is gone. You can find another match but it will never be the same match. Or in more aquatic terms: you can't step in the same river twice.

And yet the poet Randall Jarrell once said, "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great." So what do you do during 'thunderstorms'? Yes, there is a randomness to inspiration and oftentimes it hits when you least expect it – like a Freudian slip – but it can be encouraged even if it can't necessarily be predicted. How many of you have had a good idea while in the process of writing? I wasn't looking for inspiration but I was doing something conducive to being inspired. The problem with a lot of people is that they stand in the wrong places during 'thunderstorms'. A comedian who spends his life working with jokes is more likely to see the joke in something that that bus driver or that plumber we were on about earlier even if they both have good senses of humour.

The composer Steve Reich had this to say:

The more hours I put in sitting in front of the piano or the computer actually trying to compose, the more inspiration occurs. It rarely happens unless I'm actually hearing the sounds I am working on. It's the sounds themselves, the chords, the harmonic progressions that inspire me. And when I come up with a great one, then the inspiration leaps out at me.

We talk rather glibly, at least I do, about poets as being sensitive souls. I don't think poets or even artists are unique to this kind of sensitivity; what they do when affected is. Everyone gets inspired from time to time. Creative people, because of their nature, get inspired to do. I've said before that I believe a writer is a person whose natural repose to life is to write about it. So, when an individual of that ilk is inspired by something then the natural reaction to that would be to write about it.

I have ideas running though my head all the time. To suggest that I'm in a constant state of inspiration sounds preposterous but I don't think that it is. I dislike the term 'sensitive' because of the connotations that go with it but the fact is that I am constantly aware of my emotio-intellectual responses to the world around me. (Christ, what a pompous-sounding word, Jim). If anything I've become desensitised to what's going on and it's not until I get a big jolt that I wake up and smell the coffee.

So, what am I aware of? Ideas. There are ideas all around me all the time. Some I respond to strongly, because of who I am. Sunken ships don't really get my juices going but they seem to work for Sorlil and that is how is should be. That way we writers and artists cover all the ground. There will be someone out there hankering for a good sunken ship poem – I can just see it now – and what do you know? The real problem is to get him in touch with the poems. And when that happens, all that inspiration is released. It's like when I read 'Mr. Bleaney', which I know I go on about but just bear with me. 'Mr. Bleaney' was, for me, the right poem at the right time. It was like it had been written for me. And then years later I wrote 'The Art of Breathing' which another guy took and pinned on the cork board beside his desk. Inspiration gets passed around. Nothing dies. Everything gets transformed.

This, of course, is me just thinking out loud. I just hate people talking about inspiration as if it were some mystical force. It's easy to do especially when we really don't understand a word and there are so many words we use every day that we think we understand but once we start talking about them we realise that maybe we don't.

Anyway, I hope this blog has been an inspiration to all of you. Whatever I mean by that.

All the quotes in this article are from The Guardian, March 12th, 2006

Thursday 8 January 2009


51ACKZPHBYL._SS500_ "Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice? It's what we have because we can't have justice." – William McIlvanney





Over the past month my wife and I have been watching repeats of Rebus on one of the cable channels, the original four starring John Hannah, and I’ve been thinking that things could have been so different. What if Rankin had never got into detective fiction? He’s a decent enough writer so maybe he’d be known on the literary scene but would he be the household name that he’s become? And what about the TV series Taggart? First broadcast in 1983, four years before Rankin published Knots and Crosses, it’s still on the go today despite the death of its titular hero in 1994. What if it had never been made?

If we weren’t watching Taggart and reading Ian Rankin what would we have been doing? I would respectfully suggest that we would be watching Laidlaw and reading William McIlvanney. Let me explain.

McIlvanney, a west coast writer, won the 1975 Whitbread Prize for his third novel, Docherty, about working-class life in Kilmarnock before World War I. It wasn’t his first novel and he’d also published collections of poetry so it must have come as a surprise to many when in 1977 the Dostoyevskian crime novel Laidlaw appeared. On the whole the book was well received by the public and even some critics. Ken Worpole regarded the novel as “the most radical attempt to use the detective genre as a way of writing about class and city life from a socialist perspective” in British fiction.

There were those of course who because of the subject matter categorised it as a crime novel and considered that the author had gone downmarket; “degenerating to detective fiction” is how he put it himself. This was shallow thinking. Here’s what Ian Rankin has to say about crime writing:

“If you want to engage with the world, if you want to talk about the problems we have in society, you go to the crime novel and that’s always been the case, from Dostoevsky to Dickens to Raymond Chandler. Crime writing has its own rules and conventions, but they are there to be broken. The mystery element of my books is probably the thing that interests me least. What I like about crime fiction is what it tells you about the world you live in.”

When Rankin sat down to begin Knots and Crosses he had already published one serious novel, The Flood, and had no special interest in writing detective fiction, however he observed two things: firstly, that as a protagonist a police detective would have relatively free access to all strata of society and, secondly, William McIlvanney, a respected novelist, had pulled it off and kept his status in the Scottish literary and critical community, so why not?

I thought: Well, if it's OK for him to write crime fiction, then it's probably OK for me to write crime fiction. It made the crime novel respectable. It showed me that you could write and have published a crime novel set in contemporary urban Scotland. And it showed that the crime novel could be used to say something about the society we live in, about big themes.

When he’d completed Laidlaw, McIlvanney’s publisher told him in no uncertain terms if he was to write another few in a series for the next four years, he would become a very rich man. “[I]t wasn’t what I wanted at the time,” he’s said, “I’ve always had a dread of writing the same book twice, and crime writing is like comfort food, folk want you to do the same thing all the time. It was one of the key moments in my life, but I don’t regret it. I don’t see the point in nurturing regrets, they just corrode you.”

Indeed. But if he had gone down that route then Rankin might well have thought to himself: No point in having a go – McIlvanney’s got that corner of the market all sown up.

As for Taggart, well in an interview in 2006 McIlvanney didn’t pull any punches when he stated that he believed the writer owed him a debt of gratitude. He says a source at Scottish Television called him to tell him about the similarities before Killer [the ‘pilot’ for Taggart] was broadcast:

I was phoned by a guy in the light entertainment department. He said, ‘There’s this thing called Killer. In your book the body’s found in Kelvin Park, in this it’s found in Kelvin Walk. Somebody’s just moved the body, Willie. Have you got a lawyer?’ And I spoke to a lawyer. He said it was very difficult to prove theft of ideas. He said, ‘It could be two years before it comes to trial, and in that time you wouldn’t sleep too well. If you won, you’d get half a million or something. If you lost, your life would be over because you’d have to pay all the costs’. I thought it was too big a risk.

It’s all water under the bridge now and I don’t have any bitterness, but I’m convinced that it’s difficult to claim there’s no connection.

Rankin has come out and said that he believes there to be only limited similarities between Taggart and Laidlaw, but that McIlvanney was still unlucky not to have been given more credit. I tend to agree but I still feel cheated. Now here’s a ‘what if’ scenario:

Sean Connery called me up and asked if I would write something for the screen about Laidlaw. I had this great idea so I began writing it. But before you all get yourselves over excited, I never finished it. Connery’s still waiting.

What if the film had been made and been a success? Would Edinburgh-born author Glenn Chandler have been called upon to write a one-off drama based around a Glasgow detective called Taggart or one called Laidlaw? Might Connery have been tempted back to TV? We’ll never know.

From a personal perspective Laidlaw was the first novel I’d read where I felt I was reading a Scottish novel which you might find strange considering I was born and bred here. There is a tradition of thriller writing in Scotland that goes back to Robert Louis Stevenson and includes John Buchan and I’d read books by both of them but I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the settings. That’s not what I remember about the books. It is impossible to read Laidlaw and not find your nose shoved against the cold, hard wall that is Glasgow with you arm twisted half way up your back. It’s that kind of book. Indeed in one passage a drunk actually talks to the city

The book grips you right from its dramatic opening:

Running was a strange thing.  The sound was your feet slapping the pavement.  The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs.  Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other.  It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning.  And it was useless to notice these things.  It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him.

A voice with a cap on said, "Where’s the fire, son?"

Running was a dangerous thing.  It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt.  Walking was safe.  You could wear strolling like a mask.  Stroll.  Strollers are normal.

I was stunned when I read that first page and I read it over and over again. This was sheer poetry. Very quickly we learn this is the villain who has strangled and sexually assaulted a young girl whose body he has then dumped in Kelvingrove Park. Having revealed so much the author wisely keeps the motive to himself for a while. What is striking is how the second chapter begins with Laidlaw remembering suffering from bad dreams as a child:

He remembered nights when the terror of darkness had driven him through to his parents’ room. He must have run for miles on that bed. It wouldn’t have surprised him if his mother had had to get the sheets re-soled.

It’s only a couple of lines but one of the first things McIlvanny does when he introduces his hero is to provide common ground and continues to underline this throughout the rest of the book.

I was well aware of McIlvanney by this point but I’d only read his poetry which didn’t, if I’m being honest, impress me that much. But this book was different. He was talking about a city I knew. It was a city called ‘Glasgow’ but not four hundred years in the past. It was a city whose very streets I’d walked down. And the characters all talked like real people:

‘It’s the polis, Meg. They want tae talk tae Bud and Sadie,’ the man whispered.

‘My Goad. The wumman’s oot o’ her wits. Could ye no’ leave them alone the noo?’

‘Missus,’ [Milligan] said, ‘there’s been a murder. Investigations have to be made.’

Now where have we heard that line before? The people Laidlaw encounters on our behalf in this book are all plain-talking people. “Scots,” McIlvanney has observed, “is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that.” Yes, even the minor characters in this book are drawn with respect even if they lack some dignity.

McIlvanney’s approach to the detective story is a little different from your usual whodunit. From the outset we know who is dead and who has killed her, so to be technical what we have is an inverted detective story, a format that predates Laidlaw by over sixty years but was made popular in the 1970s after the TV series Columbo popularised the format. But there’s more here than a look at police procedures. What we have is not simply a howcatchem rather more of a whydunit. Because Laidlaw is a thinker, in particular a humanist. In his desk drawer he keeps “Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol”. Like Maigret before him Laidlaw pursues the criminals but refuses to judge them viewing the crime rather as a human situation, something to be understood. He is also well aware of his own flaws and realises, as I’ve been told so many times myself, that if you point a finger at someone then you’ll find four pointing back at you. This is how Dr M. McQuillan put it in an article on the British Council website:

Laidlaw imagines that it is a mistake to think of murder as the culmination of an aberrant sequence of events. It is only that for the victim. For the living, those who live on in the half-light of unknowing, it is only the beginning of a sequence of events which can lead to the undoing of lives that still have to be lived. – British Council, Contemporary Writers

Laidlaw is far more than an identikit of detectives that have gone before him. Reading the book now for the first time you’ll be far more likely to see shades of other world-weary, work-obsessed detectives like Rebus or Wallander, detectives that come after him but, yes, there’s the insubordination of Kojak, the intellectual streak of Adam Dalgliesh and the working class background of Virgil Tibbs. But don’t read too much into this. I suppose if one looked long enough one could find a bit of Poirot in the man but he really has far more in common with Philip Marlow.

The book is 224 pages long and comprises 49 short chapters; you can do the maths. Suffice to say it’s a quick read. In that respect it’s easy to swallow the chapters whole without chewing them properly. Oh, you’ll get to end of the book, you’ll find out what happens to the murderer and why he did what he did but you will have missed out on so much. For example, Glaswegians are very friendly folk, they always have been, but the city long suffered from a reputation as a hard-drinking, gang-ridden, working-class town. This isn’t the case nowadays mainly due to the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign that was launched in 1983. But remember, Laidlaw, was written in 1977. Here’s his description of the city:

Drumchapel engulfed them like a quicksand.

‘Some place,’ Laidlaw said.

‘Aye, there must be some terrible people here.’

‘No,’ Laidlaw said. ‘That’s not what I mean. I find the people very impressive. It’s the place that’s terrible. You think of Glasgow. At each of its four corners, this kind of housing scheme. There’s the Drum and Easterhouse and Pollock and Castlemilk. You’ve got the biggest housing scheme in Europe here. And what’s there? Hardly anything but houses. Just architectural dumps where they unloaded the people like slurry. Penal architecture. Glasgow folk have to be nice people. Otherwise, they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.

Laidlaw calls it as he sees it. I should point out here that Laidlaw is not a Glaswegian. He was born in the town of Graithnock, a place that appears in most of McIlvanney’s books; it is a thinly-disguised Kilmarnock, the town where McIlvanney was brought up. So, like most people reading this book, Laidlaw is an outsider, doubly so as a policeman, a man trying to law down the law to a people with their own code.

‘How about that?’ Laidlaw said.

Harkness was puzzled.

‘The inscription,’ Laidlaw explained.

Harkness read the words carved on the stone: ‘Nemo me impune lacessit.’ He knew it was Latin but he didn’t know what it meant.

‘No one assails me with impunity,’ Laidlaw said, ‘Wha daur meddle wi me? Did you know that was there?’

Harkness shook his head.

‘I like the civic honesty of that.’ Laidlaw was smiling. ‘That’s the wee message carved on the heart of Glasgow. Visitors are advised not to be cheeky.’

In his 1994 novel Mortal Causes Ian Rankin translates this, the motto of the kings of Scotland, a little differently: Don’t mess wi us.

This is where the second strand of the story comes into play and here there are some similarities between Mortal Causes and Laidlaw. In both cases the police are not the only ones looking to meet out justice. In Mortal Causes it’s the crime boss Cafferty. In Laidlaw it’s John Rhodes:

‘The rule of fear, is it?’ Harkness asked.

‘Not entirely. Although that’s a very intelligent response to have to John. But he’s more complicated than that. He does have certain rules. He’s not fair but he has a kind of justice. He could’ve been a much bigger crook. Only he won’t do certain things. So he’s settled for a level of crookery that still allows him the luxury of a morality.’

Laidlaw and Rhodes are not the only two after this guy. The murderer, the man we see running on page one, has a friend who hides him. The friend in turn contacts a corrupt bookie he’s had dealings with, a man called Matt Mason, for help in getting his friend out of Glasgow. Mason we discover isn’t interested in justice; he simply intends to clear up a mess that might implicate him and attract unwanted attention from the police.

One of the criticisms of the book is that is that it has no single narrative viewpoint to give unity to the action. In this respect it is like Docherty, McIlvanney’s highly praised previous novel, where the community and Tam Docherty, its protagonist, and the great and small events of the time are observed by a variety of characters, both major and minor. The effect in Docherty is not to fragment the action, but to round out the picture, presenting a multi-faceted view of Graithnock, the miners’ lives and the Great War. In the same way that Woody Allen’s film was called Manhattan, Laidlaw could easily have been called Glasgow.

“Geography is people”, argued William McIlvanney in his essay in the book Memoirs of a Modern Scotland and Glasgow is more than a set of map coordinates. Right at the end of the book Laidlaw says to his DC, Harkness: ‘I don’t know. But what I do know is that more folk than two were present at that murder.’ He isn’t talking literally of course but it’s probably the most important statement in the book. There were a lot of things that contributed to the murder of the young girl; a lot of people over a long period of time contributed directly or indirectly to the set of circumstances that resulted in her death. If anyone was guilty then it was Glasgow but you can’t prosecute a city, can you?


wee-mcilvanney William McIlvanney was born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, the youngest of four children of an ex-miner who had taken part in the General Strike of 1926. The first member of his family to go to university, he entered teaching but resigned to become a freelance writer in 1975.

McIlvanney’s appreciation of his working-class heritage is a mainspring of his writing. At university he found that none of the texts in his literature course dealt with the working-class life which he knew from his own experience to be rich in character, intelligence and incident. In his own work he has aimed to correct this imbalance.

As well as publishing novels, essays, short stories and poetry, McIlvanney has had a parallel career in journalism and as a TV presenter. He has held writing fellowships in Scotland and Canada. After a ten year break his novel Weekend was published in 2006.


This is an expanded version of the review that appeared on the Canongate website.

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