What a to do! Suggestions for list-makers

I have a problem with TO DO lists. They are impossible. Not only that, but – being optimists – we don’t even realise it. It’s almost tragic, our list-making.

Bob Dylan’s TO DO list.

What I mean to say is: if you managed to survive the public education system with a shred of your imagination intact, then of course your life is going to be overflowing with things TO BE DONE.

Put another way: there will always be more on your TO DO list than CAN BE DONE in an average human life-span.

You still don’t get what I’m saying, do you?

Here it is: if you were to write out your TO DO list in full, you must understand that you will DIE long before every item is ticked off.

There.

That might sound a little morbid, but it does give a certain poignancy to all such lists, which could be useful. Perhaps if we considered these lists in their true light, we would spend less time on TIDY ROOM and more time on READ HAMLET.

Suppose you have a TO DO list of ten items. What six items would you immediately strike off if you knew you were going to DIE after only doing four of that list? That should be a pretty reasonable guide as to what you should be doing and what is probably not worthwhile.

I also wonder what items would miraculously appear on our TO DO lists if we are honest with the truth that our time on this earth is finite. Perhaps CREOSOTE FENCE would be replaced by APOLOGISE TO JANET.

Think about it the next time you are looking down your TO DO list…

###

Even if you don’t follow my rather morbid objection, I have a further problem with TO DO lists. The name.

I believe that the first step in doing anything is to think of doing it. So merely by adding a task to your TO DO list, you have (by definition) already started it. Therefore, it shouldn’t be called a TO DO list, but rather a DOING list.

This has the advantage of being far more optimistic and gives you the impression that the task is pretty much over and done with. Which (I would argue) it is. If you think about it, you can easily write a novel without ever being able to spell properly, but it is an impossible task if you never even think of writing a novel. The thinking of it is always our biggest hurdle to accomplishing a task.

So I challenge you to change the name of your list and see what a difference it makes to your productivity and contentment.

Seen Seine Scene

This is a better story than the one you are reading. I know it is because I am looking over your shoulder. You are the Japanese man sitting up straight on a marble bench, at the head of the Île Saint-Louis, where it prows into the Seine. The winter sun is propped up on the draughty apartment blocks of the Île de la Cité. You squint over at the river whenever the sun squeezes through the clouds; otherwise your head is bent to the paperback pocket book in your hands. But it’s not as good a story as this one and it never will be.

Beside you is your trusty leather briefcase with its brass buckles and also your thin rain jacket and your hat, discarded in an unexpected light of February. Your bare hair is graveled with grey. You must be about fifty years old.

 You lean back to watch one of the tourist navettes as it rumbles on towards the Tour Eiffel. Your interest is gone for a moment from your book. I do not wonder, for it is not as interesting as you thought, is it? In fact, you yawn, teeth straining against lips. Then you rub your hand over your chin, feeling the stubble that wasn’t there this morning. It seems to grow faster as you get older. It seems to grey faster as you get older too. We’re not alone on the bank. A man and a woman twist into each other’s limbs. Three girls sit, legs dangling over water. Two dogs walk a man. Your attention drifts like the current.

 Reluctantly, you pull your eyes from the girls on the bank and back into your book. But you’ve lost your place. These things happen more as you get older. You try to start again from a page you remember, but it’s too much. Who is this character? You flick back a couple of pages, forward a couple of pages. Where are they? You frown. This dialogue doesn’t seem right. This description isn’t familiar.

You flick right back to the start of the story, but even the first line looks foreign now: ‘In 1962, a child was born…’ That would make him fifty today, you think to yourself – but who is he? He hadn’t been there before. The book had been about a nineteenth-century poet before you’d got distracted. You put a hand on your trusty leather briefcase for reassurance, but the brass buckles are cold. You shiver as the sun struggles. The words of the book are confusing, making your grey head hurt. It had been about a romantic poet with a flair for society, but now it talks about photocopiers and divorce?

 You snap the book shut and sigh. It’s too much. You look out at the water. The sun pushes hard one last time. The girls on the bank laugh. You bend your back and stand up straight. A dog barks at nothing. The navette rounds a corner in the river, beneath a span of the Pont Neuf. Without quite meaning to, you draw back your hand and, with all your force, launch the book out into the Seine. I quite understand, because this will always be a better story than the one you are reading.

The Mundane and the Sublime What library data says about the human condition

Today, I stumbled upon a list of the most common books stored in public libraries.

It strikes me, looking at the list, that these are our most precious books (in the Western tradition). These are the ones that have been chosen to be protected for eternity by our libraries.

As the list-makers say, these are “the intellectual works that have been judged to be worth owning by the ‘purchase vote’ of libraries around the globe.”

The data is from 2005, but I don’t think it will have changed much. Here’s the top ten:

  1. The Holy Bible
  2. US Census
  3. Mother Goose
  4. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  5. Odyssey by Homer
  6. Iliad by Homer
  7. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  8. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  9. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Now, for comparison, here’s the top ten most loaned books from US libraries in 2009.

  1. Run for Your Life by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
  2. Cross Country by James Patterson
  3. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
  4. The 8th Confession by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
  5. Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich
  6. Swimsuit by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
  7. The Shack by William P. Young
  8. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  9. First Family by David Baldacci
  10. The Associate by John Grisham

Now you might feel a certain depression looking down this list.

But I like it: the two lists represent the beautiful dichotomy of our humanity.

They represent the two worlds we have to manage every day, the two worlds of the mundane and the sublime.

Only monks can spend all their time contemplating sublimity, the rest of us have spreadsheets and nappies and traffic jams to worry about.

But it’s nice to know that, when we need them, our libraries guarantee the wonders of literature.

Like Mother Goose.


How to Write a Real Novel in 30 days: Part 3

I have finished!

I have created, from scratch, a fully edited novel of 80,000 words, in 114.75 hours, over the course of 31 (44) days.

An Admission
Some of you might be thinking: he’s been going longer than 30 days! And you would be right. I started writing this novel on the 27th of May. Today is the 9th of July, so that makes 44 days.

However: I only worked on the novel for 31 out of those 44 days.

[The reasons for this are varied. I took a few days off to hitch-hike up to the Lake District, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I took a few more days off to be ill. Another couple of days here and there for various reasons that I won’t bother mentioning. Suffice to say, excuses should never be a part of a writer’s conversation.]

So, by my reckoning, I’m only 1 day over budget. Not bad for a first attempt.

Anyway, in 31 or 44 days, it all happened in two phases.

Phase One: Write like crazy

I wrote in a straight line, from 0 to 65,000 words in 71.75 hours of writing time, over the course of 21 (25) days.

At the end of each day’s writing, I transferred everything from my electronic typewriter to my computer. Sometimes I broke these chunks into scenes, sometimes I didn’t bother. But, thanks to the concentrated writing each day, I spent even my hours of leisure thinking about the problems of the novel. Quite often I’d think of some way out that I’d write the next day. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the novel, I’d think of something that I wanted to have in the final chapter, some loose end that would need tying up, and I’d note this down for later.

By the end of Phase One, I had broken down the massive chunks of writing (about 3,000 words a day) into scenes. I had also decided that I wanted the novel to fall into five parts, plus an epilogue. Some of these parts arrived better formed than others. For example: most of the parts had about 13 scenes in them. Part II, however, had 27. This was ridiculous, especially as it was the shortest part in terms of words!

It would need a lot of editing in Phase Two.

Phase Two: Edit like crazy

I went back to the beginning and re-wrote, edited and generally tidied up the rough stuff of Phase One. This took me 43 hours, over the course of 10 (19) days.

There were quite a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense. So I had to write new scenes and completely redevelop some existing scenes. This made the novel grow quite substantially.

As an indication, by the end of Phase One, my novel looked like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 10,000 words
  • Part III: 14,000 words
  • Part IV: 10,000 words
  • Part V: 17,000 words

By the end of Phase Two, it was looking like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 17,000 words
  • Part III: 14,500 words
  • Part IV: 16,500 words
  • Part V: 19,000 words

As you can see, Parts II and IV expanded by two thirds between the first draft and the first edit. The other sections also increased in size, but more modestly.

The reason why Part I didn’t grow was because I actually started editing this Part during Phase One. The first draft of Part I was only 10,000 words in length, so it too grew significantly during the editing process.

Reflections on the 30-day process

The process, I believe, is devastatingly effective, but only if you can dedicate the hours to it. I spent between 3 and 5 hours every day that I worked.

Essentially, I worked for 21 days straight on Phase One, then took a week-long break, then spent 10 days straight on Phase Two. I would not necessarily recommend this week-long break, but it didn’t seem to hold me back too much. Perhaps it helped, perhaps it didn’t. I won’t know until I try and do this again.

One thing I probably would not recommend is starting to edit before you’ve finished the first draft. I did this with Part I. Although I felt at the time that it was helping me, in retrospect, I’m not sure it did. But again: who knows?

I do know for certain that some parts of the novel came very easily and some parts were difficult. Parts II and IV, notably, took longer to edit and required more smoothing out of the plot. Parts I, III and V were much more coherent from the first draft.

I think this is no coincidence. These parts contained much more of the action of the novel, rather than reaction and set-up. Action is no doubt easier to write: with action, you can write with the flow, whereas reaction is more circumspect and much harder to keep interesting.

So why bother with reaction at all? Because the reader needs a break! Also because I like to write novels that are a little more thoughtful than most smash-bang thrillers. So, while this novel is a thriller, it is perhaps a little more considered than Dan Brown.

Personally, I think this is a good thing; financially, it’s a disaster!

What’s next?

I’m still not entirely happy with the novel, after only one full edit. So I am going to spend the next 5 days doing a second edit to the whole novel, making sure that the plot is logically consistent. Then I am going to hand the whole thing over to my editors and first readers. So I fully expect to have finished this project after just 36 (or, if you like, 49) days.

Then I’m going to cycle around Britain…

And now? Over to you! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to have a thrash at this crazy, wild, magical 30-day real-novel-writing technique!

How to Write a Real Novel in 30 Days: Part 2

I’m 22 days into my ambitious plan to write a real novel, fully drafted and edited, in 30 days. Part 1 is here.

So how am I doing?

Well, this was always going to be a method-in-progress so here are some updates to how I’ve been doing it, and then I’ll come onto how I’m doing, if you see what I mean.

The method: a novel in crisis

1. Don’t get ill.

I managed to contract a cold at the beginning of last week, which knocked me out for four days or so. I only managed to squeeze out about 5,000 words over that time, about 5,000 words down on where I should have been.

More importantly for the project, however, was the ensuing loss of focus. Without focus or the feeling that I knew what I was doing and where I was going, the novel would be dead. This was a serious problem.

2. The mid-novel collapse.

It could have been a coincidence that I felt this death of the novel at the same time as I had a cold. The feeling came on at around 45,000 words, which should have been at a pivotal point in the story. It should have been just as the middle is developing and boiling up nicely for the denouement. But I just didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know what my fifth chapter needed to set up the ending.

3. How to resurrect a novel in crisis.

So on Thursday last week I changed focus. I did two things. Firstly, I decided that I would skip chapter five. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I’d write something that was going somewhere and then go back to chapter five later, when I’d discovered what it needed to set up. In other words: I’d write the ending.

The second thing I did was to set a new deadline and a new target and focus on that. I decided that I’d finish the sixth and final chapter in 10,000 words, on Sunday. This re-energised my writing and my focus. Suddenly I knew what I was doing again. The novel was back.

So what happened?

Well, two things happened. Firstly, I finished the sixth chapter today, on Monday. That’s one day after my deadline, but instead of writing 10,000 words, I have written nearly 17,000. So I think one day slippage is allowed. The total word count now stands at 65,000.

Secondly, by writing the last chapter (there will be a short epilogue, but this is the end of the story proper), I did find out what needed to be in chapter five.

This highlights one of the problems with the NaNoWriMo style of plotting. How can your setup work smoothly if you haven’t written the ending yet? That might sound perverse, but, by reversing the writing order, my ending will be far more believable because I know exactly what my ending (i.e. chapter six) requires in its setup (i.e. chapter five). This should save me a lot of time in the editing process.

So what now?

Tomorrow I am going to write the epilogue and then I am going to spend the last week of my 30 days editing the beast down. This will include the writing of chapter five. Again, I am going to edit the ending before the setup, so that the passage of the novel is seamless.

The final word count is going to be about 80,000 words. I am finding, as I edit the earlier chapters, that the pre-edit word count grows about 20%. This is because I have to write in extra scenes to keep the novel flowing logically. Plus there’s chapter five to be written, almost in its entirety.

Stay tuned for Part 3. Will I really have a fully drafted and edited novel after only 30 days?

David Charles: Vanity Project

I was sucked into doing this after accidentally searching for my own name, without quotation marks, on Google. I was astonished to see that I am on the first page.

I can think of no good reason for this, other than the fact that I’ve run a blog for a number of years and that it is hosted with Google themselves. I’ve done a few things here and there, but nothing to really imprint my (absurdly common) name on the collective consciousness of the world.

search: david charles

Fascinated, I looked on the other big search engines to see if this was indeed a case of Google favouritism. Here are the results:

Google (84% share of the search market):

10th result. Bottom of the 1st page.

Yahoo (6%):

91st result. Top of the 10th page. That’s more like the mediocrity I was expecting!

Baidu (Chinese language search engine. 4%):

Nowhere to be found in the first 25 pages, or 250 results. Why not? Have I been censored?

Bing (4%):

42nd result. 5th page. Solid mediocrity.

Ask (

9th result. 1st page. Suspiciously similar to the Google results. No complaints.

Aol (

10th result. 1st page. Have you been copying at the back there?

O Vanity, you spoil me!

Where it really gets interesting (for me) is when you start throwing in random words. Because I’ve written quite a lot over the years, on quite a number of diverse subjects, random words send me catapulting up the league table.

david charles travel

  • #1 and #2 on Google. 
  • #6 on Yahoo!

david charles supermarket

  • #1 – #3 on Google. 
  • #3 and #4 on Yahoo!

david charles cycling

  • #1 – #4 on Google. 
  • #3, #5 and #7 on Yahoo!

david charles palestine

  • #1 – #6 on Google. 
  • #1 on Yahoo!

david charles hitch hiking

  • 7 of the top 8 on Google. Only Larry David at #6 keeps me from a Beatles-esque domination of the charts.
  • #1, #2 and #9 on Yahoo!

Now those are not really that random. I have written quite extensively about those topics. You would expect me to score pretty highly on them. But what about these?

david charles lights

  • #3 – #5 on Google.

david charles massive

  • #2 on Google.

david charles teenager

  • #5 on Google.

Yahoo!, however, dismisses my name from it’s pages. It does seem to be better at picking up relevance, dare I say it.

And yes, that last one there was a random word from: http://watchout4snakes.com/creativitytools/RandomWord/RandomWordPlus.aspx

How to Write a Real Novel in 30 Days: Part 1

This isn’t just a pie in the sky blog post. This is something that is actually happening, right now. I’ve been holding off writing this first part for a couple of weeks, just to make sure that writing a real novel in thirty days is possible.

What do I mean by a ‘real novel’?

What I’m not talking about is a NaNoWriMo novel, where you blast out 1,667 words a day to end up, at the end of the month, with 50,000 words of complete and utter nonsense. That’s not, in my opinion, a real novel. NaNoWriMo is good for people who find it hard to get words out onto paper. For people who aspire to create something ready for publication, it’s not a path I’d recommend.

NaNoWriMo digression, or: why my novel will be different

I have done NaNoWriMo. I did it last year and, sure enough, I ended up with 50,000 words of garbage. There were some good ideas in there, but it was all over the place and would have taken me months to figure out what was good and what was not. Then I would have had to have re-written it all and added another 30,000 words before it was in a position to be anywhere near getting published.

How do I know that it would have taken me months to sort that jumble out? Well, in 2009, I started writing a novel in a NaNoWriMo-ish way. I decided to write 1,000 words a day for 50 days. This was how I started my first novel and it was a very good way to get me writing. However, the end product was a bit of a mess and it took me almost a year and a half to batter it into some kind of shape.

This is too long for me. I have a life. I can’t afford to spend a year and a half slaving over one novel. I am young and impulsive. I want to write my books in a month.

That means:

  • A manuscript of at least 70,000 words.
  • Of internally consistent and complete plot.
  • Thoroughly edited.
  • Ready for external editors, if not quite publication.

Won’t this just produce internally consistent garbage?

Not necessarily. I think there are actually some good reasons for writing a novel in a month. Here are some of them:

  1. It keeps an energy and a unity to the piece. Compressing the work into just one month means that I live every minute of every day with my characters. The ideas keep coming, even when I’m away from my bed (which is where I write, if you must know). If I only wrote ten minutes a day on the bus, then I’d be likely to lose the feel of my book. I believe that 30 days of intense work will actually create a better book.
  2. Spending any longer on a novel (I know) and I start to fantasise about executing all my characters in a variety of masochistic ways, before turning the electric cattle prod on myself. I believe that a 30-day novel will retain my enthusiasm and enrich my writing.
  3. 30 days is a deadline. When things have deadlines, they get done.

I’m sure you can think of more.

How am I doing it?

This is the really interesting part. This is the first time I’ve attempted something like this (NaNoWriMo not withstanding), so I’m finding out as I go along. But here’s how it’s gone so far.

1. Get things moving.

The first thing that needs to happen is inspiration, something to get the book rolling. This always comes to me in the form of a particularly strong, tension-filled scene. I give that particular metaphorical stone a good push and then chase it down to the bottom of the hill. Hopefully, by the time it’s got there, I’ve found another cliff-edge and it just keeps on rolling. [See #3, below, for the cliff-edges.]

2. Set targets.

I’m aiming to write about 80,000 words for my novel, so I write 3,000 words a day – without fail. I’ve divided my book up into 7 chapters and each chapter I am finishing in 3 days (I know the maths doesn’t add up, see #4, below).

This gives the work a unity and a natural rhythm. Using the rhetorical rule of three, I’m able to construct my chapters very tightly, writing a great beginning on day one, a tense middle on day two and a cliff-hanger ending on day three, which propels me into the next chapter.

3. Make stuff happen.

This is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do, I find.

It is the easiest because, once things start happening, the writing flows out and I can easily do my 3,000 words in about 90 minutes. It is the hardest because, as a fairly timid soul, I’m scared of things happening.

To make sure I stay on track, I try to make something happen every 500-1,500 words. This isn’t a hard and fast rule because every novel has its own rhythm and moments of calm are essential to heighten tension in other parts of the plot. But things do need to keep moving.

I have a habit of having my characters sit around and chat, so, when I see that happening, I introduce a man with a knife, or a police siren, or a lie.

4. Edit, edit, edit.

The writing, though, is not the thing. If the writing was the thing, then this would be nothing more than NaNoWriMo on steroids. No, the difference with this 30-day novel is that, after having written my 3,000 daily words, I knuckle down with editing.

This is what really takes the time. As I edit, I write all the missing scenes that are needed to transform the text from a NaNoWriMo-esque hodge-podge into a well-balanced novel.

It is my intention to have edited each of my chapters twice before the end of the month. This will get the text into a readable state for my friendly editors.

Progress report

So far, on day ten, I have written just over 30,000 words, comprising the first three chapters.

I have edited by hand, in red pen, the first two chapters and I have started the painful process of tapping these edits onto the computer.

I have a good, solid idea of where the plot is going and I’m still excited about it. Thank god.

For the next few weeks I’m going to have to spend even more time on editing. The writing is going really well at the moment, but, as I mentioned above: the editing is the thing.

Wish me luck!

The Remarkable Productivity of Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was the Belgian writer who created the detective Maigret. He was ridiculously successful: 550 million of his books have been printed. That’s just stupid numbers. It’s more than JK Rowling and Harry Potter. 150 million more. That’s one extra book for the entire population of Russia*.

What is interesting is that, while JK Rowling has written a decent 10 books in 11 years, Georges Simenon wrote 197 novels in his 59 year career. That’s an average of over 3 per year for over half a century.

Even more interestingly, he published another 15 in the 15 years after his death. That’s still a better strike rate than JK Rowling. Not bad for a dead man.

What’s plain ridiculous is that 148 of these books came in the 29 years from the age of 49 to 77. That’s an average of over 5 books a year.

Here’s a fancy little graph (or ‘worm’ as they’d call it in cricket), showing you Simenon’s strike rate from the publication of his first novel aged 28, to his last aged 86. Click on the thumbnail below for a bigger version (unless you have microscope eyes).

Admittedly, Simenon’s Maigret novels were quite short, but they make up less than half his output – and it is still a remarkable achievement. To be honest, I’m not sure I can match it – but it does inspire me to try.

Apparently, Simenon used to write a chapter a day for eleven days and then spend three days editing. A novel in a fortnight – forget NaNoWriMo, Simenon was hard-core!


*In fact, you could give the entire population of the USA, Brazil and the UK a copy of one of Simenon’s books. If you wanted to.

A Disturbing Night

He awoke with a restless sense of unease.

What was wrong?

He felt for his hands, pushed his legs against the mattress, brushed his tongue over his teeth. All present and correct.

Something was missing.

His sheets were there, in some disarray, but there. His blanket and pillow were there. But the feeling remained.

What had gone?

He looked around the hotel room, sunlight sliding through. Maybe something had happened. Maybe his friend had gone. He looked over – but there she was, sleeping in the other bed, the sheets rising and falling, slow and steady.

Then it struck him: his boxer shorts.

He felt for them under the bedsheets. Gone. He bent to look around on the floor, keeping the sheets tight around his body – but they had disappeared.

How can a pair of boxer shorts simply disappear?

He had worn them to bed, he was sure. He knew he had worn them to bed last night. His friend would have screamed if she’d seen him naked. She wasn’t that kind of friend.

So where were they now? Was this some kind of practical joke? Was he the victim of alien interference? Had he, in the Freudian depths of his unconsciousness, somehow removed them? And if he’d been able to remove them – what else had he done?

The mystery of the boxer shorts would linger through the day, teasing his mind as his friend showed him around the ruins of Ġgantija.

Death of a Snail – RIP 22nd July 2006

I went to refill the watering can. As I lifted the grille on the water butt I noticed a snail shell stuck to the top; no sign of the snail mind you, but, damn, I’d be hiding out in this heat too. As I dunked the can into the murky water of the butt, filled overnight by heavy storms, something floating on the surface caught my eye. There it was, bobbing serenely into my half-submerged watering can: one gruesomely bloated carcass of an ex-snail.

I gasped and brought the can sharply out of the water, leaving the slug behind, drunkenly pirouetting in the disturbed water. I examined the carcass more closely; the slug had swollen to gargantuan proportions. It was half a foot long and its tentacles burst from its head like an over-inflated novelty balloon.

A long hot humid spell inevitably wrought thunderstorms; the rain was straight out of The Old Testament and brought a harsh mercy to garden life, but marked one snail in particular for spectacular extinction.

This is a reconstruction of his final hours.

In the ne’er do good pre-dawn of Saturday, with his foolish progress punctuated by Frankenstein thunder and lightening, one snail attempted the daredevil crossing of the water butt. In the dark, the depths echoed danger, but the treacherous grille cover proved temptation too much.

Snails love water, but you don’t see them swimming in puddles, except face up.

This snail had not accounted for the rising water from the depths of the parched butt.

The vengeful rains brought down inches in moments and it was not long before our snail started to feel the waves lapping at his underbelly. Another ten minutes of deluge and the water butt starts to overflow, washing mercilessly over the body of the snail. The grille prevented the shell from slipping into the wash, but as the rains eased, the slug drowned from the bottom up.

The Mowing of the Lawns: A Study in Green, Gordon Square

The mowing dance plays with a steady whorr, with punctuating snap and crack of sticky twig or cruk of stone. Once around the round herbaceous border, once again, concentric circles of sliced and diced lawn rippling out in tidy daisy death.

This is municipal gardening, large scale, industrial mowing, without distinction. One lawn cuts the same way as the next. Sunbathers roll out of the way of the slicing machine trundling their way, sneezers get a lungful of grassy effluent and a guitar man is swamped in steady whorr.

Uniformly green shirt, blue trouser, red glove, three municipal gardeners assault the expanse of lawn, the side borders, trimming edges with mask for strimming protection.

His hair has had the same treatment by a municipal dresser, course grey lines, the borders neatly trimmed, stark against bare skin, skirting round ear curlicue, sweeping down the nape of the neck, defined: hair / not hair.

G-Verbs to Watch Girls Go By

In increasing order of intensity:

1 Glimpse

Best done over a newspaper. Detection unlikely.

2 Glance

Still casual. Check she’s not actually a fella, then move on.

3 Goggle

Eye-contact territory, be careful. You can always pretend you thought she was someone else.

4 Gaze

Seduce her with your penetrating stare!

5 Gawp

Five seconds til she slaps you.

How to Impress the Future

Things worth doing are remembered. Ergo, to do something worth doing, we’ve got to impress the future. We were the Age of Enlightenment’s future – and we’re impressed. Grudgingly.

Hate the Enlightenment #1

The most annoying thing about the ‘marvellous achievements’ of the Enlightenment is that everything they did was so obvious!

Wait – what are you saying? Apples fall from trees? Well, no shit, Sherlock! Call it what you like, Sir Isaac – I say gravity-schmavity.

Freedom, democracy, reason, capitalism, scientific method, religious tolerance – yawn! It’s all a bit, well, obvious, isn’t it? I could have come up with trigonometry. It doesn’t take a genius, does it?

But, I suppose, if you look at it from the point of view of an English peasant living on a bog, the Age of Enlightenment must have looked like one spell-bindingly incredible feat after another.

Idiots.

Hate the Enlightenment #2

The other reason to hate the Enlightenment is that they’ve done everything already!

  • Shakespeare has already written all the plays worth watching (particularly annoying for me).
  • Mozart has already come up with all the decent tunes.
  • Gallileo has done astronomy and Newton’s got physics sewn up.

It’s not that I’m jealous, but they had it so easy! (see Hate the Enlightenment #1)

The only things left for us to do are bloody impossible – like describing a complete theory of the universe or coming up with a rhyme for orange*.

Impress the Future

But that’s the way it works – remember?

If I keep thinking like an English peasant living on a bog, everything new is always going to feel impossible.

Why is it that, if we look back in time, the achievements of the Enlightenment look inevitable; but when we peer into the future, everything new suddenly looks impossible?

If only we could look into our future from the perspective of a still more distant future, so that it looks easy, obvious – and amazing.

What of our generation’s achievements will our ancestors look back at in two hundred years and be jealous of?

We can never know for sure, but we’ll never impress them if we stay stuck in our own mental bogs.


* sporange?

Love Letter Litter

The rubbish truck crawled down the road. Two men in orange suits trailed behind, feeding the truck with the green recycling boxes from the kerbside. One man did the odd houses, one did even and the lorry drove between them, its lights whirling.

One of the men in orange suits hoisted the recycling box from number 73 up to the truck and was about to toss it, when he stopped: something caught his eye. He rested the box on the side of the lorry and took out a single sheet of A5 paper.
“Here, look at this,” he called to his even-house mate.
“What’s that?” The other bin man walked over. “Anything good?”
“It’s a love letter.”
“Aw, how sweet! – you soft or something? Drooling over mush!”
“Shut up! What’s it doing in a recycle bin, that’s what I want to know.”
“It’s paper, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant: why is a love letter being recycled? You’re supposed to keep them forever, aren’t you?”
“Love don’t live here any more,” the second bin man sang.
“Maybe it was the wrong address, you mean?”
“No idea, Sherlock.”
“Maybe it wasn’t sent to 73, but was meant to be from 73.”
“The mystery of the love letter litter!”
The first bin man looked at the letter. “It’s addressed to 73. But I guess that could be the sender’s address, couldn’t it?”
The second bin man leaned over the first’s shoulder. “Where’s the envelope?”
“It’s not here.”

Just then, the driver leaned out the window and banged on the side of the lorry.
“What’s keeping you?” he yelled over the churning engine.
The first bin man looked up from the box and shouted back, “come and have a look at this, Bill.”
“What is it?”
“Just come and have a look.”
Bill face huffed and disappeared back through the window. The engine shuddered to a silence. The door opened and Bill jumped down from the cabin.

“What is it?” he asked the first bin man when he’d got to the back of the truck.
“A love letter.”
“A what? You got me down here for a bleeding love letter?”
“What’s it doing in a recycle bin, Bill?”
“I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what it’s doing in a recycle bin! Come on, let’s get back to work,” and he turned away.
“Ah, come on Bill, play the game. Why’s it in the bin?”
Bill turned back to the first bin man and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t love him any more.”
“Is it from a man?” the second bin man asked the first.
“I can’t tell. I’ve only got the first page here. It’s addressed to someone called Anne.”
“Maybe it’s not even from a man. Maybe it was a letter from her mum,” said the second bin man.
“Could be.”
“Has it got a date?”
“Come on guys, let’s get back to work,” Bill said.
“No, wait, let’s see,” the first bin man looked closely at the letter. “Yes, there’s the date: the 14th of February.”
“Mystery solved: Valentine’s,” Bill said.
“Could be…doesn’t explain why it’s in the bin, though.”
“What year is it?” the second bin man asked.
“It looks old to me,” said Bill, leaning back over the letter.
“There’s no year, just the 14th of February.”
“Blows your theory of the mother out the water,” said Bill.
“Not necessarily – Mums often do stuff like that.”
“You get Valentine’s cards from your mum?” Bill sneered.
“Shut up – I didn’t say that!”
“Never mind. Maybe it’s from her mum, maybe it’s not. But why’s it in the bin?” the first bin man asked them again.
“Oh – maybe it was sent to the wrong address,” Bill said.
“I thought that,” said the first bin man.
“Or maybe not the wrong address, but maybe it just arrived too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“Well, Valentine’s day was on Monday, wasn’t it? What if it arrived on Tuesday? What if she already had a Valentine for Monday?”
“Or that she didn’t want this one,” the first bin man said.
“You’re not suppose to know who your Valentine is – I bet the letter was anonymous,” the second bin man said.
“How come you’re such an expert?” said Bill.
“Shut up – some of us can get with the ladies, you know.”
“It might have been anonymous, but no one just sends a Valentine’s out of nowhere. You can always guess,” said the first bin man.
“All right, so here’s my theory,” Bill said, “maybe this fella was an ex. Maybe he was a arsehole. Maybe he used to beat her and that, so she threw the letter away.”
“Oh, dark, mate. What are you saying that for?” the second bin man said.
“Well, it explains why the letter’s in the bin, doesn’t it?”

The three men fell silent and looked at the letter, two reading over one’s shoulder.

After a while, the first bin man spoke up: “maybe it got sent and it arrived and Anne said yes and they lived happily ever after.”
“Why’s it in the bin then?” asked the second bin man.

The first bin man shrugged.

Underground Demographics

Carriage 96515 on the Jubilee line between London Bridge and Southwark at about 1340 on Valentine’s Day 2011. Every seat (in my section) was taken: 14 people.

  • There were 7 women and 7 men.
  • Of which 8 were white Caucasians.
  • 4 people were reading.
  • 2 were eating.
  • 1 was playing with their phone.
  • 1 was listening to music (audible).
  • 6 people were talking (3 separate pairs) – the rest were silent.
  • 2 of the men were clean-shaven; 5 had facial hair.
  • 1 person wore a hat; 1 person wore a headscarf.
  • 8 people were wearing glasses (including 5 in a row opposite me).
  • 2 people were wearing ties – all men.
  • 6 people were wearing scarves – all women.
  • There were 7 adverts on the overheads, including 3 for the same telephone company.

The woman next to me was reading “Pink iced heart cake recipe,” her eyes transfixed, her apple, half-eaten, paused in her hand.

Have Fiction Publishers Got It Wrong?

The publishing world is after one thing: selling shed-loads of books.

Writing for Now

Here’s a list of the best-selling books of 2010 (according to buzzle):

  • Alex Cross’s Trial by James Patterson and Richard DiLallo
  • Cross Fire by James Patterson
  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  • Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
  • House Rules by Jodi Picoult
  • Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • The Confession by John Grisham
  • The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl who played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  • U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

And you have to say that the publishers have got it absolutely right, haven’t they? These books do sell shed-loads. But, I think it’s fair to say that none of these books will still be selling in a hundred years.

Does that matter? Not if your publisher is owned by a French arms company*, it doesn’t, no (or an Australian media magnate for that matter*). They couldn’t give a monkey’s pyjamas for English literature.

Writing for the Future

But let’s have a look at the ten best-selling books EVER. The books that don’t just sell millions, but tens, hundreds of millions.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (>200 million)
  2. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  3. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  4. 红楼梦 (Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin
  5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  6. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. She by H. Rider Haggard
  8. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (65 million)

This is where it becomes more interesting. Yeah, sure, there’s still a huge heap of garbage here. The Da Vinci Code is never, ever, ever (please God) going to win award for literary merit. But A Tale of Two Cities? The Catcher in the Rye? Hey – some of these are actually good books!

Some of these are actually worth studying, worth holding up as genuine achievements of human creativity and beauty, rather than simply excellent business models and marketing talent.

Further down the list, in amongst Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsAngels and Demons and The Happy Hooker: Her Own Story, you’ve got genuine classics of world literature like To Kill a MockingbirdNineteen Eighty-Four and the Divine Comedy.

So my point is this: if publishing were an industry built around long-term strategies, then literary merit would be a legitimate marker of profitability. Unfortunately, in this time of take-overs, no one really cares if your book is going to be a hit in a hundred years or not – and the loss is ours, the loss is to humanity.

I’m not complaining; I’m just saying.

Any Ideas?

So is there a solution for writers who want to write – not just good pulp – but great fiction? Maybe.

Maybe the answer is to do it yourself, to win your audience through hard work, rather than swapping greatness for money.

Maybe the answer is to team up with a publisher who has more modest financial ambitions and more courageous literary spirit, publishers like Zer0. I went to a talk given by the founder, Tariq Goddard, last week and was impressed and heartened by his passion for literature and by his confidence in the power of the long-tail of our great, ignored literary fiction.

Maybe, when we’re all history; history will remember the greats as well as the pulp.


*Hodder and Stoughton, owned by Lagardère, who co-control the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company; HarperCollins, owned by News Corporation.

How to Write a Play

Disclosure: I’m no expert. I’ve never written a play. But, boy, have I just analysed the ass out of one.

This analysis covers the 1954 play by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men.

The story is about a jury who are deliberating over the case of a young black man charged with the murder of his father. The verdict must be unanimous – and it almost is at the start of the play: eleven to one vote guilty. But that single dissenting voice gradually uncovers flaws in the prosecution evidence and, in turn, each of the other jurors overcomes their own prejudices to return a unanimous vote of “not guilty”.

Observations on How to Write a Play

Having just spent about ten hours typing out this play, I feel I’m qualified to make a few observations about the way Reginald has written Twelve Angry Men – and how this might offer pointers to other would-be playwrights.

Keep the action focussed

There is only one (and a half) locations in the play: the jury-room and the wash-room just off to the side. This keeps the action very tight and focussed. It makes the play claustrophobic, an atmosphere that is accentuated by the humidity of the weather – broken by a thunderstorm.

Define the characters

Twelve Angry Men has quite a lot of characters for a play, really: twelve jurors, a guard and a judge. There’s not much Reginald could have done about that: a jury has twelve people. But he does two things to deal with this potentially difficult large cast:

  1. He doesn’t add any extraneous characters. The guard is largely silent (39 words), simply providing the jurors with props. The judge is a voice off-stage and is used to set the scene at the beginning of the play, saving Reginald the trouble of a lot of clunky exposition.
  2. He divides the jurors into “primary“, “secondary” and “tertiary” characters. Four of the jurors take up 61% of the words in the play. The next four take up 25%. The final four jurors have just 13% of the words of the play. Just for a bit of crazy fun – here’s a chart showing the speech patterns of the twelve jurors, as the play progresses. Click on the picture to see a full-size version.

Keep the tension high

Reginald does this superbly by having the jurors take regular votes. At the beginning only one man votes “not guilty” – this is the single vote that sets the play off. There are five general votes in total, spaced throughout the play, and the audience is on tenterhooks every time, as the votes are called out.

You can see exactly how Reginald has paced the play by looking at the way the jurors voted in my little list below. “Vote” means there was a general ballot of some sort, where every juror voted. “Change to” means that only one or more of the jurors announced their change, without calling a general vote.

  • Page 06: Vote 11-1 (“Guilty” – “Not Guilty”)
  • Page 18: Vote 10-2
  • Page 24: Change to 9-3
  • Page 26: Vote 8-4
  • Page 31: Interval
  • Page 33: Vote 6-6
  • Page 41: Change to 5-7
  • Page 42: Vote 3-9
  • Page 45: Change to 4-8
  • Page 47: Change to 1-11
  • Page 49: Change to 0-12

Note here that, although the interval comes over halfway through the play – 63% of the way through, to be precise – at that point, the vote is 8-4 in favour of finding the young man guilty. The scene that the interval curtain falls on is a turning point, highly dramatic. Immediately after the interval, the vote swings to 6-6 – even stevens.

Note also that Reginald adds a little twist towards the end, making one of the jurors change their mind from “not guilty” to “guilty”. At this point, the audience might fear there is the chance of a hung jury.

I hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this. I might do it again.

Anatomy of a Novel: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists. His talent is in his concision. He is able to say in 200 pages what it would take many other writers 400. The Quiet American manages to be a thriller, a detective story, a romance and a historical fiction in just 167 pages, about 60,000 words.

How does he do it? I decided to find out.

For those of you who haven’t read The Quiet American, I’d seriously recommend doing so immediately. But the gist of the story is this:

Setting

Vietnam in the 1950s, during the French war.

Main Characters
  • The viewpoint character is Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for some time.
  • Alden Pyle, the quiet American of the title, has been murdered.
  • Vigot, a French detective, is trying to find out who did it. He suspects that Fowler may know something about the murder, but Fowler denies everything.
Plot

Fowler and Pyle have been competing over the last few months for the affections of a Vietnamese girl, Phuong, Fowler’s lover of two years.

Fowler is unable to offer Phuong anything concrete: he is already married and his wife refuses him a divorce.

Pyle, on the other hand, is young and has good prospects. In the course of his courtship of Phuong, Pyle saves Fowler’s life.

But when bombs start going off in Saigon, Fowler discovers that Pyle has something to do with it. He tells a communist contact that Pyle has “got to be stopped”. Pyle is murdered.

Phuong returns to Fowler, whose wife has now granted him a divorce. Vigot can’t prove a thing.

Scene Structure and Pacing

I divided the book up into its parts, then into its chapters, then into its sections within those chapters, then down into its scenes within those sections in order to build up an anatomy of the novel.

The Quiet American is split into four parts. The first two parts take up two-thirds of the novel.

  • Part 1: 55.5 pages in 5 chapters and 16 scenes. 1300 words per scene.
  • Part 2: 64 pages in 3 chapters and 14 scenes. 1700 words per scene.
  • Part 3: 26.5 pages in 2 chapters and 9 scenes. 1100 words per scene.
  • Part 4: 21 pages in 3 chapters and 7 scenes. 1100 words per scene.

Already we can see that, as the novel progresses, the pacing of the scenes increases.

After the climactic scene in Part 2, in which Pyle saves Fowler’s life, there are no more sections longer than 8.5 pages. In Parts 3 and 4, the longest section is just 6 pages. You can see this clearly in the graph below (click on it for a bigger size):

The Quiet American: chapter section length in pages.

Flashbacks and Narration

One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is Greene’s use of narration and flashback. The novel is mostly told in flashback, with Fowler recounting the events leading up to Pyle’s death.

In fact, there are only 8 scenes in the whole novel which are told in the present (17%). The rest is flashback (83%). The whole of the longest part of the book (Part 2) is told in flashback. This is the most dramatic part of the book.

And yet it is the present narration that adds the suspense to the book: did Fowler have a hand in Pyle’s death? Will Vigot find out? Why did Fowler do it?

The fact that Greene is able to keep these questions in the reader’s mind without detracting from the sense of immediacy during the flashbacks shows great skill.

The placing of these scenes may give us a clue.

  • 5 of the first 6 scenes take place in the present. In these, Greene establishes Pyle’s death, the relationship between Fowler and Phuong and the investigation into Pyle’s murder by the French detective Vigot.
  • Then there are 24 consecutive flashback scenes, taking us through the rest of Part 1 and the whole of Part 2.
  • There is not another “present” scene until scene 30 of 46, at the very beginning of Part 3 (1 out of 9 scenes in that part).
  • Finally, the first and last scenes of Part 4 are also present (2 out of 7 scenes in that part).

In this way, Greene is able to give the story a good push at the beginning and then only has to give us a little nudge in the middle, to remind us of the ongoing investigation, before wrapping things up at the end.

Getting Closer

To look more closely at the section structure, word counts, present narration and flashbacks and for a brief synopsis of each section, see the image below (click on it for a larger size – and no apologies for the crazy colours!):

The Quiet American: detailed analysis.

Through close examination of the way that great novelists have solved the problems of plot and narration, we can improve our own writing and understand how great novels work. I hope this article helps you as much as it has me!

The Ministry of Stories

Dave Eggers and 826 Valencia

In 2002, Dave Eggers (the writer) set up a pirate supply store. And that’s why, on Monday, I spent an evening writing a story about a fish called Bob, who was distressed by the colour of his tail.

826 Valencia was Eggers’ stab at creating a literacy program for kids. As you can imagine, from the mind of the man who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this was never going to be a normal after-school homework club.

The idea (once you’ve got past the pirate supply store frontage) is that kids come to 826 for story-writing workshops, mentoring, cartooning, ‘zine creation, homeworking, poeming – anything really. And the idea has been wildly successful. As a result, six other chapters opened up in the States. But, now, most excitingly, London has its very own: The Ministry of Stories.

The Ministry of Stories

As soon as I heard about it, I cancelled any plans I had for emigrating to the US to join Dave, and instead I emailed the Chief Minister at The Ministry of Stories. To my delight, he invited me for a training session, which is where I found myself on Monday night, pretending to be an eight year-old, writing a story about Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.

My kind of (volunteer) job!

The Ministry of Stories was set up in November 2010. They take about three field-trips a week from local (and not so local) schools and also have two one-to-one mentoring sessions a week to help young writers (8-18) work on their stories.

Plus you can buy the finest human snot at the monster supply store, while you’re there.

Minister in Training

So, hot-tail, hip-top excited, along I went, down Hoxton way, to meet Ben and Anne, two of the Chief Minister’s aides, for an evening’s hard training.

To start off, we pretended to be eight year-olds and wrote a story together.

  • First we made a list of things that go into a story. Things like villains and danger and feelings, but also words and punctuation. 
  • Then we had to decide who we wanted our main character to be. We shouted a few things and then had an anonymous (and blind) vote. By democratic decision, it would be Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail
  • Then we did the same thing for a second character: Archimedes, Bob’s hairdresser
  • Then we chose Bob’s dream in the same way: to wear jumpers; and Bob’s greatest fear: that he would turn completely blue
  • Finally, we chose a location for the story: a pub.

Then, together, we wrote the first page and a bit, trying to build up to a cliff-hanger. The gist of the story was that Bob really wanted a jumper to cover up his embarrassing blue tail. Archimedes offered to make him one (out of Bob’s hair) – but it would cost him. The problem was that Bob didn’t have any money. So Archimedes suggested that Bob go and ask the elephant in the room for a job. And that’s where we had our cliff-hanger: “But isn’t he…?”

At this point we all split up into mentors and writers and we finished the story on our own, with the help of the mentors. Frighteningly good fun.

The Fish’s Arms

Here, for your edification, is my (unedited) story. See if you can spot the logical inconsistencies; editing is a wonderful thing…

“But isn’t he…?”
Archimedes stopped cutting Bob’s hair and touched him on the shoulder. “Listen. Finish your pint and just go over to him. I’m sure he’s not as mean as the stories say.”

Bob gulped and looked over at the elephant from the corner of his goggles. The stories were horrible.

Archimedes reached over and took the pint from Bob’s fin. “Go on.”

Bob vomited a little bit in his mouth. “But they say his trunk can strangle a shark!” Bob said in a small voice.

“That’s true,” Archimedes said. “I’ve seen him do it.”
Then he saw Bob retch again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Bob shivered and watched the muscles in the elephant’s back as he sucked up an entire gallon of brine. “I can’t do it!”

Archimedes shook his head at his old friend, picked up his scissors and said, nonchalantly, “Your tail’s looking very blue today…”

Suddenly, Bob shot out of his chair, spilling the rest of his whelk juice all over the elephant’s foot.

There was a rumble and the whole pub started to shake. Bob quivered and whimpered as the big fat elephant turned slowly around and bellowed in Bob’s face. “You! Blue-buttocks! Are you looking for a snorting?”

Bob could hardly move for his quivering and shook his head scarcely. There was a tinkle as the scissors fell from Archimedes’ hand and Bob felt his friend creep away…

Chapter Two to follow!

(Perhaps.)

The Contract

And so I signed the Ministry contract:

YOUR RESPECT
YOUR COURAGE
YOUR IMAGINATION
WILL BRING YOU VICTORY

Huzzah! Can’t wait to get my first ministry appointment.


You can watch Dave talk about 826 Valencia – and the network of similar ventures it has spawned – here:

The Superlative Death of Gerund Clause

Gerund Clause (1938-2010) was the world’s finest grammatician. Even at primary school, he would terrify playground bullies with his diachronic inflections and became known as a powerful allusionist at the end-of-term school performances.

At university, he studied chemistry with metallurgy and wrote his thesis on the extraction of iron from irony. He was a popular young man, full of complements, but also an incorrigible show-off, frequently disrobing the female students with a well placed copula.

After university, he astonished military advisors to the government by splitting an infinitive from forty paces and was immediately employed as grammatician-general to the army.

Gerund enjoyed a successful career with the army. It was said that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he dismantled an atomic bomb with just a question mark. He became famous in the United States for his reported speech to the UN Security Council, describing members of USSR politburo as “oxymorons”.

Continuing his work with the army, Gerund was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize after his vigorous campaign to replace explosives with expletives in NATO combat operations. Unfortunately for global security, his diacritics defeated the policy and Gerund quit the military in 1978.

After leaving the army, Gerund moved into domestic policy. He became known as “The Postmodifier” after a number of measures to streamline the US mail service. In the 1980s, he proposed the legalisation of prostitution in urban areas and suggested that government levy a new syntax on the vice industries. While working in vice control, Gerund uncovered a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that was extracting heroin from the female protagonists of nineteenth-century English literature.

Although unconventional and not always succesful, thanks to his considerable achievements, Gerund rose to a high preposition in the US government. He retired from public service in 1999 at the age of 60.

In his retirement, Gerund spent more and more time on his scientific interests. He deepened his understanding of astronomy by studying the phrases of the moon and, in 2001, he successfully demonstrated that spacetime was not infinite, but infinitive. In his spare time, he bred race pidgins.

In his 70s, Gerund returned to the political themes of his youth and, in 2009, he wrote a blistering attack on the selfishness of modern society, diagnosing the entirety of Western civilisation with a self-obsessed malaise he called “Meiosis”.

Sadly, last year, Gerund died of a parasitic gap to the brain. He will be remembered as a great man, whose motifs were always pure and who always had a simile for everyone he encountered. He leaves behind his loving wife, Polysyllabic (68) and daughter, Anaphora (41).

The world mourns the loss of a great figure of speech.

Repose

There’s a repose to your room.

Six vases stand on the table in the centre. In each one is a withered flower. Withered of one, withered of another. The petals lie curled up on the table, dropped on the floor, all shades of decay, from crackly burgundy to dusty velvet. I can’t make out the original, but it looks like it might have been budded roses.

The fireplace stands, but the fire is out: deaded coal dust. The lamp is no more lit, hiding the corner where I know the bed does sit. The whole room could be a mausoleam, or a museum piece. Nothing on the walls is unfamiliar, but it’s all cast with a silty pallor.

That picture over there, I took that: a sunny day in Brighton. You’re laughing, I remember, behind me, laughing at the cameraman and his so serious sunsets. But apparently it was worth it, there on your wall, after all.

The carpet is fudgey. My feet seem stuck and I can’t budge inwards. I can’t creep to look at books on your shelf, or the papers you hide in their covers, to twist and turn over the oddments that scatter the room. On the mantelpiece, what is the meaning of that elephant? I’ll never know now. A simple shiny lacquer elephant, still standing where you placed him, faithful, trunk swung. But I can’t move.

I know it is there, there in the corner, by the lurk of the lamp, the lamp you never let me touch. I never switched it off at night, I never switched it on in the dark mornings. The lamp was always the gatekeeper, daring me: when you have the lamp, you have the girl. I couldn’t touch the lamp now, not now. That would violate some unwritten rule of repose.

But I know it’s there, there in the corner. Lurked by the lunky lamp, the bed humps, angle poisoned. The bed I know, with its sheets and shivers, the smells when you clump the duvet down, the secrets of underneath pillow. All that soft sheer thread-count-a-million cotton to smooth out and repose. In your repose.

Fancy a Butcher’s?

His mother was the village butcher. She always dressed elegantly, often in full-length evening dress with a string of pearls around her neck. Then, over her beautiful dress, she would throw her butcher’s apron – the purest white, all the better for showing up blood.

He hadn’t known any different; she’d always been his mother, the village butcher. Every day she’d open the shop very early to take the carcass deliveries, Then she’d prepare the cuts of meat, lovingly, handling the sharp knives with a dexterity that her father would have been proud of. Then she’d serve the village regulars, slicing, dicing, mincing to order and her day would end in time for her to walk down to the school to pick her only son up at the gate.

No, her little boy had never known different, but he’d been told by the neighbours that his mother had been quite something in her day, before she’d taken on the family business, quite something.

When she was young, in the blossom of adolescence, she’d had, they said, the boys of the village wrapped around her little finger. But, they said, there was no one for her but Andrew Hammond. No one remembered Andrew half as well as they thought they did, but everyone said that he had been the pride of the village: the golden boy.

They remembered his clean sweep at the school sports day: 100 metres, 400 metres and long jump. They remembered his single-handed demolition of The King’s Head ‘A’ in the darts. They remembered his hat-trick in the final of the West Harkshire Under 19s. And they remembered, perhaps best of all, his shining smile, as featured, almost every week, on the front and back pages of the Croxford Herald.

And it had never shone more than on the day he was murdered.

It was the night of the school dinner-dance. His mother had gone with Andrew, of course. They were the prince and princess of the village, the luminous couple, the day-dream dancers. They said she wore a dress of pure gold that night, with a simple pearl necklace that lit her face just so. But her face had been dark that night, they said. They said that his mother and Andrew had had an argument, about what no one ever found out.

But it made no difference: still they danced and danced around the village hall, her shoes tapping on the wooden boards and his smile reflecting off the mirror ball brought down for the evening. Nothing could take away from their luminescence, from her beauty and his athleticism. Everything was well, it seemed. But that was the last smile anyone ever saw on Andrew’s golden face.

They never found out who did it, who stole the knife from PG White the butchers and who had made the precise cut above the Adam’s Apple to remove the head, found in ditch on the road leading out of the village.

They told him that his mother had never taken another boy after Andrew – out of grief, they said. She had taken over the family business when PG White himself died not long after. They said it was God’s justice that Andrew Hammond had begotten a golden child before his horrific end. They said that his mother was an angel in her virtue, living her quiet life since, slicing, dicing and mincing.

But every time he watches his mother, in her long dress and her white apron, making another incision to the neck of a pig, he can’t help but wonder what really became of his father.

Progression

Do you know what an arithmetic progression is? Of course you do. Our lives are a finite arithmetic progression with a common difference of one: we live one year at a time. One follows one follows one – and so on towards infinity, until, one quiet news day, a bus brings a bloody end to your smug-faced progression. Or maybe it’ll be Gog, Magog and the Lake of Fire, Sarah Palin or a CBRN incident. Oh come on: Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear.

That’s an arithmetic progression. Fucking boring.

Now think of a geometric progression. Are you an optimist? I’m not, I say things get worse. I say we live in a nightmarish geometric progression with a common ratio of a half. We live one life, bad enough, but then we’re back again with a life half as long. After that: another life, half as long again. Then another, again half as long – and so on into infinity until we’re dead before we have a chance to be born.

Think of it like reincarnation. I’m going to live this life as a human, a squalid lump of rotting flesh with a heart that beats for a million ticks and then stops. One human life and then I’m dead and gone, cremated because I’m not worth the grave-space. Call it a hundred years before I’ve checked out – maybe I am an optimist; maybe I just want to make the maths easier for you. A hundred human years.

But then I’m reincarnated. I’m not so lucky, though: I’m on a geometric progression with a common ratio of a half, remember. So this time, maybe I come back as a chimpanzee and only get fifty years before getting smeared.

Then, before you can say “the transmigration of souls,” I’m back as a snake and only get twenty-five before kicking the calendar.

Next, I might return as a camel for twelve and a half years before popping my clogs. I quite fancy being a chipmunk for six and a quarter years and a mouse for three and an eighth, before eating another dirt sandwich.

I could add another eighteen months as an opossum, before rejoining our great majority. As a particularly resilient worker ant, I could manage nine months before being remaindered. I’d follow that up with a life as a worker bee, before turning up my toes to that too.

Then I’ll race through lives as a housefly and a fruit fly until I’m back for just five minutes as a female mayfly of the species dolania americana – and thence to meet my godless maker.

But even if I took all these reincarnated lives, from my fifty years as a chimpanzee to my five minutes as a mayfly of the species dolania americana, and added them together, I still wouldn’t get another hundred years in total.

That’s the nature of this hellish geometric progression. Even if you kept coming back after the mayfly: for two minutes, one minute, thirty seconds, ten seconds, five seconds, two seconds, one second – you’d still never match your hundred hypothetical years as a human.

Don’t waste it.

Review: Infernos Nightclub, Clapham

The club was called Infernos. Because it wasn’t just hot, it was hotter. The name brings up some interesting theological ideas: not just one hell, but hells, each lovingly designed to its individual occupant’s worst nightmare. One man’s torture is another man’s pleasure, after all.

But I wasn’t there to be tortured and there were only two hells to choose from: House Party downstairs and Discotheque upstairs. I choose upstairs. Stairway fake curtains are plastered to the wall in chipped red paint, draped over a stair-length looking glass, screwed to the wall like in your cheap bathroom.

Hellish Thought #1: am I destined, forever more, to dance to the music from Grease?

Revellers don’t so much dance as simply coexist in the space. A girl, heavily made up, walks past me on the dancefloor, yawning. Two lads, one short, one tall, try to talk. Some laugh, some cry, some sing, some shout. But vacant looks dominate.

I find an open space on the busy dancefloor in which to jerk my arms and flail my feet as best I can. Then I realise: vomit is swilling around my ankles. The dance swells out from the caustic pool.

A girl sits alone, arms crossed, on a leather-effect sofa that shows signs of wear. She’s dressed up fine and her legs are bare. But she doesn’t look like she wants to be there. A security man perches on a low wall above the dancefloor, blankly watching the action below. One leg dangles. Menboys swing their shirts around their heads as the DJ hollers though the smoke puffing from his smoke machine, ‘Gonna switch the style after this one!’

Hellish Thought #2: are they having fun or are they comatose?

Impossibly, two aquariums shatter disco light in their water. Bemused fish, deaf, hoover up gravel with their bulbous lips, ignoring a girl and her boy who play hide and seek through the glass. In a mirror-image of excess and delight, a disco light revolves drunkenly above the convulsing crowd, its bulb gone.

The place to get your drink (of water) is called The Cocktail Bar and the girls’ toilet is called the Ladies Powder Room. No sign of a possessive apostrophe though. Singers sing in sound-proofed silence in the Popstars Karaoke Lounge. There’s a pool table in one corner, but no one is interested in playing games.

Empty beer bottles hit the dancefloor, where they are kicked and kicked again until ejected to the periphery, where a man carrying a red fire bucket picks them up. Boys hit the dancefloor, where they are kicked and kicked again until ejected the periphery, where a girl carrying a handbag picks them up.

Hellish Thought #3: I enjoy this.

Good ideas without action are just bad excuses

‘Good ideas without action are just bad excuses.’

I’m not sure if this saying from 2009 needs to be explained, but I will anyway, with an example.

A lot of people say:

‘I’m gonna write a novel!’

but then don’t start writing, they don’t act on their words. So it turns into:

‘I’m gonnna write a novel – when I’ve got a bit more time, after the kids have moved out, after I’ve bought a new computer, after I’ve finished painting the Sistine chapel…’ 

etc., etc., etc..

Hence: good ideas without action are just bad excuses.

Death on a Sofa

It could happen right now. The ceiling could collapse on me, squashing my skull under the concrete. The radio could burst into flames and I could suffocate in the fumes. A thief could break in through my window and stab me to death. I could have already ingested a deadly bacteria from a tomato that I didn’t wash earlier. I could have a heart attack. The incense I am breathing in could be poison.

The whole point of death is its suddenness. That’s the game, that’s the framework. I need death to live and life to die. I need you to be me and you need me to be you.

The fluorescent light bulb on in my room could explode and kill me with noxious fumes. The floor might collapse underneath me, crushing me in the rubble. My computer could explode, sending shards of plastic flying across the room to sever my carotid artery and I could bleed to death on this very sofa, right here, as I write these very words.

Still waiting.

Better do something else.

The Age of Plastic

What’s left when the entire human race is dead?

Good question. Well, now we know: what’s left when the entire human race is dead? Fire alarms, that’s what.

There’s no one here to service them, there’s no one here to fix them after they go off. And, because they weren’t connected to the grid, they didn’t just shut up when the power went down. I know that sooner or later the batteries will run out, but I’ll probably be gone by then too.

It gets you to thinking though. Those fire alarms will last longer than I will. What does it say about the human race, when our warning systems outlive the ears they were meant to warn? It’s like the man who set his alarm clock for the morning, but never woke up. When the neighbours called the police, they found him there, the alarm clock still ringing, but his ticker gone.

When we’re all dead and rotting – and it won’t be long – the vultures (or whatever’s left) will get ear-ache picking over our bones.

Makes you wonder what else we’re leaving behind. What else seemed so important that we had to give it a life-expectancy ten times longer than our own?

Did you know that the first piece of synthetic polymer plastic wasn’t created until 1907? The plastic we used to make, before we started dying, had a life-expectancy of a thousand years. You’d have to go back to the Norman invasion of England to get an idea of how long a thousand years is. Just imagine if the Normans had made everything out of plastic instead of wood or metal or stone. Archaeology wouldn’t be so hard: it’d all still be here.

Except there wouldn’t have been any archaeologists around to find it. If the Normans had invented plastics, like we did, they’d have got themselves into this fine mess, like we did – and we wouldn’t have existed at all.

So should we be grateful that the Normans didn’t invent plastic? Grateful that we got the chance to live on earth, grateful that we were the ones who invented plastic? Grateful that – no matter that we wiped out fifty percent of the species on earth, including ourselves – at least we had the opportunity to live?

Maybe we should be. What difference does it make? The earth was bound to reject us sooner or later. No species lives forever. We’re not the first species to mine ourselves out of existence in an orgy of over-consumption either.

Maybe we are the first species to talk about it at dinner parties, though. Maybe we are the first species to know what we’re doing to ourselves as we’re doing it to ourselves – and then to pass around the port.

We’re like the villain in a Bond film, who, with masochistic relish, informs 007 of the precise mechanism of his death and then walks away. Of course, that was always just a plot device to give James Bond enough time to escape from the villain’s snare. It’s not going to work that way for us. We’re doing it to ourselves, pressing the gas mask to our faces as we talk. We can’t walk away.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t care. And I’m not alone. Well, I am alone, but I wasn’t alone, clearly. No one cared, before they started dying, because it wasn’t real. No one could get a grip on the scale of the problem. I can’t blame any one else either. No one understood what we were doing in the age of plastic. And then, when we did understand, no one could control themselves.

We choose this, we wanted it.

Funny that, as the earth burns up, the only sound I can still hear is the sound of fire alarms.

An Alcoholic in a Country Village

We see him, now and then, shuffling along the road leading out of the village. Sometimes we see him in the local shop, his head unsteady, tilting at the sweet stand. But most often we see him in the pub, The King’s Head, on the left as you come from the green.

His name is Steve and he drinks lager. Sometimes he plays on the fruit machines, but most often he drinks lager.

The King’s Head is split into two parts, separated by a wall. The larger part of the bar is on your right as you come in and there’s always half a dozen locals here, whiling away the country hours. The left hand part of the pub has only a few seats and is where you can find the pool table, a couple of dartboards and, lately, me and George.

And Steve.

We go there to relieve the tension of unemployment. At the pub we can relax, shoot some pool and talk about jobs and how they’re for mugs and how we could make a whole stack of money in some scheme or other.

But we don’t drink. Oh no, we don’t drink, not like Steve.

I wonder about Steve a lot. He’s not employed either. I don’t see how he can be. He’s there, already drunk, when we pop in for a quick game of pool at lunch time and he’s still there when we leave. He drinks slowly, but steadily. Lager.

But then he does seem to go home for the evening. I wonder what he meets there. A wife? His mother? A housekeeper? Or the lonely click of his key in the lock, the tired creek of his old front door and the empty tick-tock of the hall clock…?

The Hostage

The men with masks tied us up. They tied us up, back-to-back on the floor of the bank vault, and then they left. For two days we breathed each other’s breath, felt each other’s hearts, beating through our rib-cages. For two days we starved and suffocated together.

On the morning of the third day, the men with helmets came and cut the cord. The vault opened to the agoraphobic world and I lost you in the crowd. You were relieved, but I? I am still in that vault, bound alone to my memories.

The Lamp

It was my birthday today. My girlfriend – of six years, mind you – gave me a lamp. A lamp. I don’t like lamps. Why did she buy me a lamp? Does she know me so little? Six years! Has she not noticed my aversion to mood lighting?

It’s not even a lamp with a purpose, like a bedside lamp or a desk lamp – it’s one of those funny little ornamental lamps, shaped like a stone. And the light – such as it is – is a feeble puddle of sick yellow. Useless. It just sits in the corner, like a disease.

I haven’t the heart to tell her I hate it though. I wonder if it was meant as a message, that she wants to shed some light on our relationship or something. I’ve never been so disturbed by a gift in my whole life. I mean, I’ve received plenty of crappy presents before, but this is supposed to be from the love of my life. A sodding lamp.

I think I’m going to have to break up with her.

But what can I say? I can’t tell her the truth. I can’t say that we’re splitting up because she gave me a lamp for my birthday. That would look superficial – but it’s not superficial, is it? How can she have gone out to buy me a nice present and come back with a lamp? What does that say about us?

But still, I can’t blame the lamp. She’d tell all her friends that I broke up with her over a lamp and then I’d never get with Suze, would I?

Nah – there’s no option but to blame our break-up on something else. I guess I could use Jon. They’ve been shagging for months.

Then I can dump the lamp.

Touring with Dinosaurs

This is a list of the top grossing worldwide ‘tours’ of 2010, according to Pollstar.

1. Bon Jovi

  • Gross Takings: $201.1m (£130.7m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $105.35
  • Number of Shows: 80
  • Gross Takings per Show: $2.5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 48

2. AC/DC

  • Gross Takings: $177m (£115m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $97.21
  • Number of Shows: 40
  • Gross Takings per Show: $4.4m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 57

3. U2

  • Gross Takings: $160.9m (£104.6m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $100.17
  • Number of Shows: 32
  • Gross Takings per Show: $5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 50

4. Lady Gaga

  • Gross Takings: $133.6m (£86.8m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $88.22
  • Number of Shows: 138
  • Gross Takings per Show: 0.97m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 24

5. Metallica

  • Gross Takings: $110.1m (£71.5m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $98.72
  • Number of Shows: 60
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.8m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 47

6. Michael Buble

  • Gross Takings: $104.2m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $83.81
  • Number of Shows: 111
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.94m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 35

7. Walking with Dinosaurs

  • Gross Takings: $104.1m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $50.56
  • Number of Shows: 485
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.21m
  • Got Famous: Late Triassic Period
  • Age Now: 230m years

8. Paul McCartney

  • Gross Takings: $93m (£60m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $138.35
  • Number of Shows: 31
  • Gross Takings per Show: $3m
  • Got Famous: 1960s
  • Age Now: 68

9. Eagles

  • Gross Takings: $92.3m (£59.9m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $121.85
  • Number of Shows: 54
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.7m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 62

10. Roger Waters (ex-Pink Floyd)

  • Gross Takings: $89.5m (£58.1m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $126.14
  • Number of Shows: 56
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.6m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 67

Dinosaurs

With the exception of Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé, I would contend that none of the things touring actually exist any more. Or shouldn’t.

It is highly appropriate that the show ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ is at number 7. Arguably Dinosaurs fill most of the other spots as well.

Bands that were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s should not still be massive today. It goes against all the impulses of Rock – and against the very definition of Pop.

The old Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude of ‘live fast, die young’ has been forgotten (or at least part of it) – and from the looks of those box office takings it seems these guys (note: all men) prefer filling their pensionable pockets to dying.

Fair enough – I suppose it’s not their fault that healthcare has advanced to the point where even rockers living fast can still survive to a ripe old age.

And I suppose it’s not their fault that they are top of these charts: it’s just that their fans are the ones with the money, baby-boomers all grown up, cashing in their own pensions.

And why not?

Well you’ve got to ask why the money in music is still with acts that hit the big time thirty years ago? What does that mean for the industry? What does that mean for innovation and new music? Do we really have to wait until we’re retired before we can afford to go and see top-line shows? What price nostalgia?

I guess you can make a parallel with books. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is still wildly popular with young kids looking for their first taste of freedom, just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s our job, writing today, to be better than that.

Otherwise, why bother at all?

Tetris Life

I once spent a whole summer playing Tetris. I’d get up late and play, like, seven hours straight. And then, at night, when I slept, I’d see the blue and yellow and red and green blocks falling like alien snow, soft and easy in my dreams, falling into place with a touch of my mind.

But the summer ended and it was time to go back to school. Obviously I couldn’t play so much and anyway I met Susie soon after that. But that summer of Tetris has always stayed with me, as a metaphor, and I still get those dreams sometimes.

I figured life is just a game of Tetris, isn’t it? You twist and turn to fit in around other people, sometimes you slot into space perfectly; other times it’s awkward, nothing seems to fit and there’s a bit of a panic as the mistakes pile up. Sometimes it gets so awful that you’ve got no choice but to fail and start all over, building up from the bottom again.

The most important thing in Tetris, like in life, is to have a good strong foundation. An early mistake is always lurking there to trip you up. You’ve got to dig down and sort it out sooner or later or you won’t get anywhere. Sorting yourself out can take a long time, but it’s always possible.

The art of Tetris is to stay focussed on the current block, while keeping one eye on what’s coming next. But you’ll never really know the future, nothing beyond the next block. You have to deal with the blocks that life throws at you.

Me and Susie lasted a couple of terms, but then she decided that Adam fitted her much better. That was fine by me. She helped me get through a couple of levels and then I was ready for more, with a clear screen ahead of me.

As I get older, though, I find the blocks are falling fasting. It’s that much more difficult to manipulate them and get them slotting in the right way. Sometimes you just have to make do, cram them in any old how. There’s no point waiting for the right block, I don’t have time. Once, around level four, I waited almost the whole game for one of those long straight blocks. I could afford to do that, the game was still pretty slow and, when it came – boom – five rows down in one.

I don’t have that luxury any more. I’ve got to make do with whatever comes my way. Just keep going, line after line, level after level, until one day it all just falls apart.

The Taps

The taps have stopped dripping. Ever since the day my dad died, all the taps in my parents’ house have been dripping, like they were in mourning or something, dripping tears onto the porcelain of the sinks. The taps have been dripping for so long that the water-drops have grooved brown stains where they fall.

It would make sense that the taps were in mourning. My dad was a plumber and lived pretty much his whole life in this old house, ever since he bought it in the sixties with mum. He fixed up the central heating back in the seventies and he was always tinkering around with the pipes and the boiler. They must have missed him badly when he died.

Soon after the taps started dripping, mum called dad’s old mates in to sort it out. They tightened all the nuts in the taps – for free, they said, out of respect for my dad – and the dripping stopped. But as soon as they left, the taps started up dripping again. Mum decided to get used to it, she said it made up for the silence of my dad’s absence.

But now they’ve stopped, a year to the day that my dad died.

I suppose when you live somewhere for a long time, you and the plumbing start working in rhythm. The boiler warmly awakens you in the morning and heats the house for you in the evening. The water pipes expand and contract in diurnal exercise. The radiators flex into life in the winter and hibernate in the summer. There’s hot water just when you need it, cold when you don’t. The plumber playing on his pipes in symphony. And then, suddenly, only the taps drip-dripping.

I don’t live in a house. Not many people do these days. I live in a studio flat in the city. I moved in six months ago and I imagine I’ll move on again in another six months. I don’t think my studio flat will cry for me like this old house has for my father. It’s not like that anymore.

She Was a Pianist

She was a pianist. That’s what she always said anyway. Not once in the whole time I knew her did I ever see her play the piano, but that didn’t stop her. She was a pianist, end of story.

We’d been dating for about two months before I questioned her pianist credentials, but she just changed the subject. I didn’t press her at the time because she was very pretty and it’s not often that I have the chance to date pretty girls, so I just let it slide. What did it matter to me anyway, if she did or did not play the piano?

So things progressed, as they do. I’d go to her place, she’d come to mine, we’d meet in the park, we’d go to the mall. Then pretty soon it was her birthday. I was excited about what I’d got her: two tickets to go and see a concert, Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades. I’d phoned my mum and asked her for some advice and that’s what she’d said. It was going to be a surprise so I didn’t tell my girlfriend until the day of the concert. I was excited, she was excited, we were both excited. Then I told her and everything changed. She went deathly silent and I got a bit upset.

‘Aren’t you pleased? I thought you liked piano music – you’re always saying you’re a pianist for Christ’s sake! Let’s just go to the damned concert.’
She shook her head.
‘Why the hell not?’
‘I can’t.’
‘Why not? What’s wrong? Tell me.’
She looked very sad, ‘my brother was killed by a piano.’
I was shocked, ‘how?’
‘It fell on him’
‘While he was playing?’
‘We used to live in a big house with a grand staircase. One day, the piano fell down the stairs and crushed him. He was only nine.’
‘Jesus, that’s awful!’
She nodded.
‘So why do you call yourself a pianist?’
She looked ill. ‘It was me who pushed the piano down the stairs.’
‘Why on earth did you do that?’
‘I wanted to see what it sounded like.’

I didn’t see too much of her after she told me that story. The Nocturnes were good though.

Bryanology: The Semantics of Seduction in the Lyrics of Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams, Canadian Poet Laureate, three-time Oscar nominee and true heir to the song-writing legacy of Bob Dylan, is also a prime proponent of cock rock.

In this article I examine some of his poetry for their florid description, astute observation and sound love-making advice.

Bryan Adams and the Physical Act

Bryan doesn’t like to leave much to the imagination. He wants to demonstrate to us, not just his lyrical virtuosity, but also his experience in the bedroom.

This, from Tonight We Have The Stars (2008), explains how we might progress from the dinner date to the bedroom, Adams-style:

We’ll save ourselves a bottle
Of California red
We’ll drink it on a Tuesday
Let it go straight to our heads

And we’ll eat from good china
And make love on linen sheets

Once in the bedroom, Adams is a master of seduction. His ability to describe the Act in words of rhyme is unparalleled, take these couplets from his 1996 smash hit (UK #9) Let’s Make It A Night To Remember:

I love the way you move tonight,
Beads of sweat drippin’ down your skin,
Me lying here ‘n’ you lyin’ there,
Our shadows on the wall and our hands everywhere.

Can’t you just picture it?

However, his experience can be intimidating to us mere mortals. In Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman? (1995, UK #3) he mocks the listener’s sexual prowess. His sneering ‘really’ implying that, while we may believe that we have indeed performed the Act, the woman was not truly satisfied. Luckily, Adams gives us quite a detailed lyrical sex manual:

To really love a woman,
To understand her,
You gotta know her deep inside…

He follows this with an explanation of how the woman can teach the male to arouse the sexual organs:

To really love a woman,
Let her hold you,
Till you know how she needs to be touched.

Then Adams takes it to the next level with an exhortation to extreme oral sex:

You’ve gotta breathe her – really taste her,
Till you can feel her in your blood.

This may seem a little gruesome to the inexperienced, but it reveals Adams’ dedication to the pleasure of the opposite sex.

Bryan Adams and Invitations to Infidelity

In the 1980s, Adams wrote a string of material about sexual infidelity, starting in 1984 with Run To You (UK #11):

She says her love for me could never die,
But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I,
Oh – but her love is cold,
Would it hurt her if she didn’t know?

The question is rhetorical of course. It is unclear if the subject of Run To You was also the subject of his next song, Princess Diana, in Diana (1984):

Oh the first time I saw you was in a magazine,
The next time you was walking ‘cross my television screen,
I knew right then and there that I had to make you mine,
The day that he married you I nearly lost my mind.

Diana whatcha doin’ with a guy like him,
Diana I’d die for you, please let me in.

Just in case Adams’ intentions were even slightly opaque, like a real man, he makes them quite clear in a later stanza:

Since I saw that picture of you,
Nothing matters I just wanna lay ya.

But Adams was also realistic about his conquests. In One Night Love Affair (1985, Canada #19), Adams is clearly cognisant that love affairs are fleeting, transitory experiences:

The night was made for love, it ain’t for keeps.

Later in the same song, he gives one of the most heart-rendering accounts ever put into rhyme of the vacuous lust that is a one night love affair:

One night love affair,
Trying’ to make like we don’t care,
We were both reachin’ out for somethin’,
One night love affair,
Sometimes life ain’t fair,
Oh – and not we’re left with nothin’.

Please note: whether this poem describes an affair with Princess Diana (dearly departed) or not is never made clear in the poem.

Bryan Adams and Sexual Rejection

Bryan Adams is not always a stallion in the stable of love it would seem – unless, as appears likely, he writes the following verses not from experience, but out of pity for lesser men. This theory is given greater credence by the fact that they are all album tracks, rather than one of those selected for smash hit status.

This verse from If You Wanna Leave Me (1991) mocks the desperation of the dumped and Adams shows his sensitivity to the plight of others by capturing the anguish in words of tearful power:

If you wanna leave me, can I come too?
If you wanna leave me, gonna go with you.
If you say no – I’m still gonna go!
If you wanna leave me – can I come too?

(I Wanna Be) Your Underwear (1996) satirises the desperate lengths that some men will go to in order to become close to the object of their desire. Not a problem I imagine Bryan has:

I wanna be your t-shirt when it’s wet,
Wanna be the shower when you sweat …

Wanna be your sleepin’ bag, baby slip inside,
Let me be your motorcycle n’ take ya for a ride.

But even in the face of rejection, Adams will still insist I Ain’t Losing The Fight (2008):

Bring it on, bring it on I was born ready,
I’m a son of a strong man – I’m rock steady,
Everything you throw I can see it coming,
Ain’t gonna be no TKO just a lot of lovin’.

Bryan Adams and Sexual Malfunction

Fascinatingly, Adams also shows us how to deal with premature ejaculation, in this verse from Hearts On Fire (1987).

First he apologises, as a gentleman:

You know I can’t help,
the way I feel inside…

Then he takes control, as a man, requesting his lady-friend’s immediate presence, telling it straight:

So come on over,
I ain’t hard to please.
Oh baby – what you get ain’t,
always what you need.

No, indeed. Not always what you need; it’s all about what Adams needs. The description of the actual ejaculation is poetic as ever:

Risin’ to my feet I can feel the heat,
It’s tryin’ to pull me under,
Runnin’ through the night,
we can make it right,
It’s comin’ on like thunder.

So the next time you find yourself coming on like thunder, take a deep breath and think of Bryan.

Recycling

I always do my recycling. I always separate my papers from my plastics. I always wash out my yoghurt pots and flatten my pizza boxes. Always. Least I did until this morning. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. Anyhow – I’ll tell you what happened.

I’ve got this big green box that I was given by the council for all my recycling, right? I fill it up over the week, all conscientious like, and then on Wednesday nights I take it out for the Thursday morning collection. So last night, just like every Wednesday night, I took the box from under the sink in the kitchen and picked it up to take outside. Just as I got to the front door, though, a baby mouse jumped out. Near made me pop an aorta.

What was I meant to do? If there’s one baby mouse in the box, I thought to myself, there’s probably a whole nest of the poor blighters. Now I’m not superstitious or anything, but I am a believer in Buddhistry, least the bits pertaining to not killing no one. So, you see, I couldn’t just put the box by the side of the road and let them get mashed by the recycler, could I? At the same time, though, I’m proud of the fact that I’m a conscientious citizen: recycling is my civic duty. So what’s it to be, my duties or my moralities?

The only thing left was a compromise. There was two options for the compromise. One, I could take the recycling out of the box and disturb the nest, remove the mice and get the recycling done. Or, two, I could leave the mice to it and take the recycling out when they’ve left the nest. I thought hard about it, but it came down to a very simple question: which do I value more, my duties or my moralities? There’s only one answer to that, so I left the mice alone. I didn’t want them in the house, though, so I left the box by the front door.

I thought I’d made it clear to the bin men that they weren’t to take my recycling. The box was right on the step outside my front door and I’ve got quite a bit of a garden before the road, where I normally put my rubbish. But I guess we’ve got conscientious bin men, haven’t we? I saw them taking that big green box this morning, as I stood in the upstairs bathroom, just out the shower. I saw them as they threw everything into the compactor – papers, plastics, yoghurt pots, pizza boxes – and mice. My aortas froze and I felt my heart skip a somersault. I nearly ran outside, naked as a lark, but I stopped myself in time – what good would that have done?

I feel pretty bad about what happened. I keep thinking about the day when I open up a new pad of recycled paper and there, across the page, is the scarlet gash of mouse blood. I’ll deserve it.

The Light of My Life

My dad was famous. When he died, the newspapers were full of him and his life’s work. It’s not often someone can say that. Of course, I knew him long before his fame and he only became really popular at the end of his life, after I’d left home.

I’ll always remember he used to tell me that it didn’t matter what you did as long as you were persistent. As long as you keep doing it over and over again, he’d say, people will eventually take notice. And his life was the proof, I suppose. In repetition, he’d say, there’s pattern. It doesn’t matter if the original building block, the singular of the pattern, is something strange or mundane, ugly or beautiful. What matters is replication to make the pattern.

I never really listened much to that old guff. The last thing I wanted to be doing was the same thing over and over and over again. It seemed pretty stupid to me when I was a kid, but now? Now I don’t know.

My dad became famous for collecting light bulbs. Doesn’t sound too spectacular when I put it like that, does it? But when I say he collected light bulbs, I mean he collected light bulbs. He stockpiled them, he amassed them, he hoarded them every day of his life. Not to use, mind you, just for the sake of collecting them.

If I buy one light bulb, he used to say, people will think I need a light bulb; if I buy ten light bulbs, people will think I’m stocking up; if I buy a hundred light bulbs, people will think I’m crazy – but if I buy a thousand light bulbs, people will think I’m a genius. And that’s sort of the way it turned out, just he got the order of magnitude wrong by about a factor of about a hundred, I reckon.

I didn’t see too much of my dad after my mum left him. I mean, we weren’t enemies or anything, we just weren’t that close. I had my life and he had his – or rather the light bulbs had his. It got to the point, even while I was still living at home, where there was no room for anything but light bulbs. There were light bulbs in the house, in the garden and in the garage. There were light bulbs in the basement, in the kitchen and in the bedrooms. There were light bulbs in all the cupboards, in the fridge – I even found a secret stash in the toilet cistern. Anywhere you could put a light bulb, he put one.  All different kinds too: bayonet heads, screw heads and pin heads; halogen, LED and tungsten; pearls, globes and candles. You never saw such diversity. You can understand why my mum wanted to get away. I’ll never be the light of his life, she told me once, with a grim smile.

And then he got into the papers, when my mum left him. It was a freak show kind of famous, though: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs” – that sort of thing. A lot of the newspapermen asked my dad why he collected light bulbs. A lot of people assumed it was a metaphor, that the light bulb represented genius, you know, the light bulb moment, or some other symbolist rubbish. But no. My dad always said the reason for collecting light bulbs was simply that they were a widely available household product. That was the only criteria. His point was that anything done persistently enough will get it’s own reward.

It was a shame that he died when he did. He was really excited about all those new energy saving light bulbs and went on a madder-than-ever buying spree just before he died. Nothing me or mum could do to stop him. But then he snuffed it and he was in all the papers again: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs Dies.” The papers got even more excited when I executed his will and found that there was nothing left. It had all been spent on light bulbs. The house had been re-mortgaged even. All that he left me was a key with a little tag tied to it: basement stairs.

I thought maybe he’d left me something after all, so I fought my way into the house, through all the junk of light bulbs and dug down the old basement stairs. And, sure enough, there was a little cabinet high up on the wall. Quite excited at what I might find, I reached up on tiptoes and unlocked the door with the key. But inside was nothing. Nothing at all, just a simple switch, like you might find on any wall in any room. I thought dad had finally gone potty: why lock up a stupid switch?

Disappointed that it wasn’t something a bit more significant, I flicked the switch. Suddenly the basement burst into light. The glare scorched my eyes and I flinched like I’d been hit and threw my arm over my face. I staggered back up the stairs, but the hall was also on fire, a blinding light, pulverising my eyeballs. It was like being a tiny tungsten electron in an enormous incandescent bulb. They flared from every wall, from the ceiling, from the floor, through the cracks of cupboard doors.

I stumbled out of the house and into the front garden. The whole house was ablaze with light, lit up like a lantern. It really was a sight, a million Christmases and a million Bonfire Nights all rolled into one. Slowly, steadily I heard voices gather about me. I looked around and saw that the whole street had come out of their houses to watch. Then some folks walked up from the village to see the spectacle. Through my wincing eyes, a little bit of me was proud. Soon people were pulling up in their cars to marvel at the walls, the windows, the roof, stacked with bulbs, all shapes and sizes, glowing in the night like a star.

Well, of course that got him into the papers again. No more the freak show, though. This was a wonder of the modern world, a work of art. You could see the house on satellite maps, apparently, so wherever he is, my dad can see it for sure. I like to think it gives him a little smile.

Hide Dad

So I open the door and this dead guy falls on me. Gross. So typical, though – it was my dad. What a moron. Why’d he have to die here? He’d only gone out for a fag. And now everyone’s gonna blame me. Typical. Whenever anything goes wrong in our house I’m always the one who gets the blame. Well I’m the youngest, ain’t I?

I’m lucky my mum and sister have gone out shopping so as no one sees me with a dead dad in my arms. I pull him inside so the neighbours don’t see neither and lay him in the hallway while I think about what to do. I check his pulse. Definitely dead.

This is so not my fault and I’m so gonna get the stick for it. I give him the once over, to see how he’d died and that, like a stabbing or something. But I can’t see nothing, no blood nor nothing. And you know what that means, don’t you? No alibi. Here he is now, dead as a doughnut, with my fingerprints all over him. Incriminating, or what?

There’s only one thing for it: hide the body before my mum and sister come home, and then deny everything. Without a body there’s no evidence, is there?

It’s like that vase I broke last year, that one of mum’s she loved so much, a present from my sister. Stupid glass thing, no idea why she liked it so much. If anything, I did her a favour. I’d have got well in trouble if I hadn’t hid the bits. Mum’s always having a go at me for playing football inside. But I’d swept it up real careful and then denied everything when she got back in from work. Nothing she could do was there? No evidence. Course she suspected something, she suspected I’d broke it, but she never knew, did she? I wrapped it up in newspaper and dumped it in a bin down by the caff on the high street. They never found it, course, that stupid vase.

So it’s the same story for dad, I guess. Wrap him up in newspaper and dump him somewhere out of the way. Then deny everything. They won’t be able to prove nothing.

Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I

Two popular poets and story-tellers. It would be incredible if Dylan hadn’t referenced Shakespeare. Here’s a selection (by no means exhaustive) of references, some obvious, some oblique, to Shakespeare in the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Straight References

These are the ones that even I can catch. Blatant hello mum’s from Dylan to the great bard.

Highway 61 Revisited, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right

Twelfth Night (1601-2) is a play by Shakespeare, innit.

Desolation Row, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia is a tragic character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601).

Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well

That’s my boy!

Time Out of Mind (1997)

The phrase ‘Time out of mind’ is from Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Bye and Bye, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Well, I’m scuffling, and I’m shuffling
And I’m walking on briars
I’m not even acquainted
with my own desires

As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 2 (found and submitted by Nick Dorman to Dylan Chords):

ROSALIND
O, how full of briers is this working-day world!
CELIA
They are but burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in
holiday foolery: if we walk not in the trodden
paths our very petticoats will catch them.

And later in the same scene:

ROSALIND
I do beseech your grace,
Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me:
If with myself I hold intelligence
Or have acquaintance with mine own desires

Po’ boy, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket,
By the way, what happened to that poisoned wine?”
She said, “I gave it to you, you drank it.”
Po’ boy, layin’ him straight,
Pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate.

Othello and Desdemona are characters in Shakespeare’s Othello (1603). Interestingly, it looks like Dylan has confused or (being generous) deliberately conflated the plot of Othello, in which Othello dies by stabbing himself, with the plot of Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo dies after drinking a fatal poison.

That’s it for the obvious references (that I can find anyway) – now here’s some more obscure ones.

More Oblique References

You’d only spot these if you’d spent far too much time playing Shakespeare and reading Dylan. I didn’t find these.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

And in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 14:

ANTONY
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish

Thanks to Ellis Sharp for this stupidly obscure reference!

This reference is given greater credence by the later literary reference in the song to Verlaine and Rimbaud, two other poets.

Mississippi, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine

And in Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 (submitted by Mike Conley to Dylan Chords):

DUKE VINCENTIO
If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.

Other Parallels

Dylan doesn’t just quote Shakespeare, he also uses the same kind of scripting techniques and has even suffered some of the same traps of fame.

Measure for Measure (1604) and Seven Curses (1963)

The folk narrative of the lecherous and unjust judge in Dylan’s Seven Curses parallels the premise of Measure for Measure, when Isabella pleads for mercy to the nasty judge Angelo for her brother, Claudio, who is to be executed for fornication. Over the course of two scenes between Angelo and Isabella, it becomes clear that Angelo harbours lustful thoughts about the novice nun, and he eventually offers her a deal: Angelo will spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will yield him her virginity.

I could have saved myself the trouble of copying that from Wikipedia by just making a few edits to the Bob Dylan lyrics:

Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang.
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand

When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head,
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father,
The price, my dear, is you instead.”

I got the inspiration for this parallel from Bardfilm.

Bootlegs

Apparently, Shakespeare didn’t want his sonnets published: they were circulated among fans as – what can only be described as – bootlegs.

The parallels with Dylan’s Basement Tapes, recorded in private in 1967 and never intended for release, but widely bought and sold among fans, are obvious. Like Shakespeare, Dylan has bowed to the inevitability of popularity and now regularly releases out-takes from his album recordings and live performances as his very own ‘Bootleg Sessions.’

I picked up this story from NPR.


This is Part I because there is no way that I’ve found all of them, just from searching the internet and my own brain-ears. Maybe one day I’ll throw a corpus-analysis at the entirety of Dylan’s lyrical output and the whole of the first folio of Shakespeare. Probably not though.

If you can spot any more references, please do add them in the comments below. Thanks!

A Writer’s Manifesto

Every self-respecting writer has a manifesto these days, so here’s mine. Feel free to cover your mouth before laughing.

I. Beginning

  1. This manifesto is not a rule book and there is nothing wrong with hypocrisy.

II. Life

  1. I live. I experiment. I write.
  2. I don’t need any props for this life. I can even write without pen and paper.
  3. The world is big enough for us all.
  4. This isn’t a game and money isn’t the score.
  5. I’m not going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or an engineer. Survival isn’t enough.
  6. I will push my physical and mental capabilities. “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.” Mandela.
  7. I am responsible for my own experience. Nobody else knows what is good, meaningful or worthwhile for me.

III. Writing

  1. A book is just a book. I’ll write hundreds of them.
  2. My creation is independent of me. I just show up and put in the hours.
  3. Success and popularity are independent of my creation. They are whims of fortune.
  4. I’m not dependent on suddenly being ‘discovered’.
  5. Publishers are only middlemen.
  6. Bob Dylan can’t sing or play the guitar.

IV. The Audience

  1. There is an audience. They might not be listening, but they are there.
  2. I will not be afraid to engage the audience.
  3. The audience will see themselves in what I write because I am human also.
  4. I will inspire the audience with new ideas, perspectives and sensations.”What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” Thoreau.
  5. I will entertain the audience.

V. End

  1. This too shall change.


What do you think? Big fat self-indulgent piece of tripe? A worthwhile exercise to keep me on the straight and narrow? You ever thought about writing your own manifesto?

Bryanology: An Analysis of Bryan Adams’ There Will Never Be Another Tonight

Forget Dylanology, there’s a new pseudo-science on the block: Bryanology, the close literary analysis of the major lyrical works of Canada’s Poet Laureate, Bryan Adams.

Today’s study is of Adams’ 1991 hit There Will Never Be Another Tonight (UK #31). This is one of my favourite songs ever. I’m not joking. It’s virtuoso use of language is astonishing. Bryan Adams sets off one lyrical firework after another in frantic pursuit of an apt metaphor to describe his Catherine Wheel of a lover. So set this video (shot at Sheffield Arena, Rachel Weisz in the crowd) to run in the background and I’ll talk you through it.

From the very beginning, Adams struggles with the common notions of femininity:

Put on your best dress darling,
Can’t you see the time is right?
There will never be another tonight.

But he clearly feels constrained by these clichéd words; this woman defies the accepted rules of description. And so he launches a passionate quest for the words that can capture his lover’s beauty.

First the lady-love is some sort of vehicle:

If you got your motor runnin’,
Then I got my engines on,
Say the word and darlin’ we’ll be gone.

Then she’s a witch with diabolic tendencies:

You gotta ride your broom right into my room,
Kick off your shoes make yourself at home,
Wave your little wand – weave a little spell,
Make a little magic – raise some hell.

Then, is she a boat? –

Let the wind fill your sails…

No, Adams explains, she’s a wind-powered train:

A runaway train ridin’ on the rails.

She’s a wind-powered train, Adams elucidates, at a baseball match:

We got the bases loaded,
Home run – power play,
Tonight’s the night we’re goin’ all the way.

But just when we think that he’s beginning to pin this woman down, Adams changes tack yet again – she’s actually a jewellery-operated torch:

Flash your diamonds, shine your lights,
There’ll never be another tonight.

It’s all we can do to keep up with Adams’ lyrical dexterity and fecund imagination – sometimes I wonder if he is as confused as we are.

And so we come to the end of the song and it seems that only one thing is clear: Adams is totally in thrall to this woman he is unable to describe – or is he? Perhaps not:

Cause we got nothin’ to lose, just me and you,
In your wildest dreams…
There’ll never be another tonight.

Has this all been a dream? Does this explain the series of bizarre and contradictory images that run through Adams’ sleep-addled brain? Perhaps the woman of his dreams is exactly that – there will never be another tonight indeed.

How to Succeed in Business (Or How to Become a Writer)

I was at a business networking event this lunchtime (woah – I’ve just upped my street-cred), where I suffered a wonderful presentation given by a business-woman who supplies live-in carers to disabled, elderly or bored people.

Now, I usually spend the entire duration of these presentations wondering how the hell the panicking presenter has managed to start their business, let alone how they’ve come to be lecturing others about their wonderful success – but, right from the start, this presenter was different.

And when this truffle of wisdom fell from her lips, I knew I was in good hands:

“Don’t jump in,” she warned us, “with all feets a-blazing.”

So here it is, the wisdom of Lee-Ann from Choice Homecare on how to succeed in starting up your own business.

How to Succeed in Business

As you may have noticed from the sentence above, Lee-Ann loves figurative language. Well, who doesn’t?

Not one for hyperbole, she describes her battle for self-employed success as like the battle between David and Goliath.

She’s David, by the way, and Goliath is the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of running your own business.

Persisting with the metaphor, David slew Goliath with five stones in his sling and so, for Lee-Ann, there are five ‘stones’ in her ‘sling-shot’. So far, so metaphorical. Here are those stones:

Stone 1: Passion

Your business must be something you are passionate about because nothing else will keep you going through the tough times.

Success or failure will be down to you, you can’t rely on others and nor can others let you down.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

At this point Lee-Ann also trotted out a lovely little cliché: ‘Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

As an employee of a regular business, you never have to worry about what happens tomorrow.

As the owner of your own business, you will constantly be worrying about tomorrow. Equally, though, there is no cap to the possibilities of what you can achieve; it’s up to you what you plan for.

Stone 3: Priority

You’ve got to know what is worth doing and what isn’t. Don’t waste your time on trivialities.

Stone 4: Past success

Keep a record of your achievements, so that you can look back on them when you feel like you’re a failure.

The memory of winning her first client keeps her going when she is finding it tough to find new clients.

Winning that first client told her that all her hard work had been worthwhile.

Stone 5: Perseverance

Lee-Ann had many nos before she got just one yes.

It took her 15 months to get her first client and she only became profitable in her third year.

Ka-pow. Goliath is slain. But what do all those deadly stones mean for me (and you) as writers of serious intent?

How to Become a Writer

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again because a dead horse is there to be flogged: if you want to write seriously, then make it your business.

If you start taking it professionally, then the results will be professional. So let’s have another look at Lee-Ann’s five stones from the point of view of writing.

Stone 1: Passion

Because no one else is going to tie you to your desk and only you can make this a success.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

I personally don’t plan novels when I start them, but boy is there a lot of planning after the first draft. There’s also a heck of a lot of preparation involved in creating the right conditions for writing, i.e. a huge block of alone time, a typing machine, copious pots of tea, etc..

I guess I did a fairly lengthy apprenticeship in writing with my 18-year academic career as well. And the possibilities are limitless with my writing.

Stone 3: Priority

Er, like not doing yet another blog post when I should be writing my novel.

Stone 4: Past success

I will always have written one novel. I know I can do it and there is no reason why I won’t be able to again. I know what it takes.

Stone 5: Perseverance

How many nos will I have to hear from agents, from publishers, from editors before I get that one yes?

Right now I have no idea, but I’m going to keep going until I find out.

The Nine Best Books Ever Written in the English Language

This list is an aggregate of lists from Random House (1998), The Guardian newspaper (2003) and Time Magazine (2005). Hopefully it represents a fair blend of US, UK and publishers’ perspectives.

Why nine? Simply because these nine are the only ones that make all three lists.

Without further messing about, I present the nine best books ever written in the English language, in alphabetical order, by author:

  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Forster, EM: A Passage to India (1924)
  • Golding, William: Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Heller, Joseph: Catch-22 (1961)
  • Kerouac, Jack: On the Road (1957)
  • Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita (1955)
  • Orwell, George: 1984 (1949)
  • Salinger, J.D.: Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  • Spark, Murial: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I’ve only read seven of these. The ones I’ve missed are A Passage to India and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I shall be catching up as soon as I’ve got through Midnight’s Children, which only made two lists (Time and Random House).

There are plenty of debates and arguments to be had over this list, but the indisputable truth is that these are nine pretty good books.

Here instead are my one-sentence reviews of the seven I have read:

Gatsby: Vacuous morality in the roaring twenties.
Flies: Politics = Let’s pick on piggy.
Catch-22: O what a hilarious war!
Road: Wild unripping hail of road-storm America.
Lolita: The aesthetic mind of the forbidden erotic.
1984: Big brother is still watching us.
Catcher: We were all teenagers once.

Now get reading.


2018 UPDATE: I still haven’t read A Passage to India or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – presumably because I never finished Midnight’s Children.

It’s just a question of careful editing

I was just editing my latest book (The Soles of My Shoes, out in time for Christmas, I hope), when I noticed something very peculiar. I use the word “just” an awful lot. And I mean an awful lot. Anyway, I spotted this and started editing them away, using instead “simply” or “only” or just deleting them altogether. I thought I’d done a pretty good job getting rid of them and was quite pleased that my eagle editing eye had noticed this oddity. Then I decided to run a word frequency count, just for a laugh – and the full horror of the problem was revealed.

After my purge I was still using 201 instances of the word “just”. In a book of 48,000 words, this comes out at about one “just” per paragraph or about two per page. I then compared it with my previous draft. In that I’d used 213 “justs”. My bloody purge had got rid of just 12.

So I went back and declared a just war. Now I’m down to only 108, about the same number as “around”, “people” and “yeah” (oh yes, this is a book of great eloquence).

This is a valuable lesson for all writers: do you know what words you’re addicted to? I use a word analysis extension for OpenOffice called Linguist to check my writing. YWriter, my favourite writing tool, also has word analysis built in. Use these weapons in your battle against mono-vocabulary and cliché. You might find you’re missing something, like I just was.


Update: “Just” is very common. Apparently there are 3,400 instances per million in British English conversation, second most frequent, after the adverb of place ‘there’ at 3,800. So, in fact, my usage was average. Maybe I should just go through and put them all back in then!

Ezekiel is not an Idiot

Ezekiel is not an idiot. He is very well qualified and holds a position of responsibility at one of the more respectable IT services corporations. He has a company car. Ezekiel is not an idiot.

But he’s troubled. It should just be lunch, but something has disrupted his meal. Ezekiel is eating a bag of mixed nuts – or rather – he was eating a bag of mixed nuts. Instead, he is looking down at his palm, trying to identify his food. He knows from the list of ingredients that this bag of mixed nuts includes peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. Using a process of elimination he thought he had identified them successfully, that’s a peanut, that’s a pecan, that’s a hazelnut and that’s surely an almond.

But what’s this? Ezekiel isn’t sure what this nut is. It’s a lot smaller than his almond, but there’s something very almondy about it. Perhaps this one is the almond, not that other one. But then which ones are the Brazils? And are these really hazelnuts? Ezekiel is troubled. If he can’t identify his own food, what else is he missing?

Ezekiel is not an idiot; he’s got a company car.

The Little Red Fiat

This is the story of The Little Red Fiat. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you, in the Tate Modern? It was painted by my little boy – not so little now, but he was back then. Probably about twelve I think, when he painted that one. But he started painting them when he was only three.

We’d bought him a painting set, nothing fancy, for his third birthday. We needed something to keep him occupied after his little sister was born. He hadn’t taken too well to the new member of the family and we couldn’t deal with a demanding toddler and a new baby. So we sent Joseph off with his painting set. It seemed to absorb him and he did a painting of our little red Fiat – we used to have one back then. This painting wasn’t quite like the one you’ve seen in the Tate, just blobs of red in a box shape. It took a bit of working out what it was, but we said well done and stuck the picture to the fridge, like all good parents do. We encouraged him to paint some more and over the next few weeks he painted and painted and painted. But all he’d paint were little red Fiats.

At first we were just grateful we’d found something to keep him occupied. But then, after his little sister had grown up a bit, we started to worry. We tried to encourage him to paint other things: a tree, the house – other cars, at least. But no, all he wanted to paint was our little red Fiat. He painted all day sometimes and the paintings did improve, he put in more details, made it look more realistic, but it was always the little red Fiat. When he was about six, the painting (for their was only ever one painting really) had crystallised in its final form: the little red Fiat with the the doors thrown open and a boy in pyjamas standing with his back to the painter, looking at the car with his hands folded behind his back – you would recognise it, I’m sure. And so, for six years, that’s exactly what he carried on painting, doing three or four a week. We didn’t think much of the paintings themselves, except as a cause for worry over our son’s mental state, but then we weren’t an artistic family.

But then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Joseph was twelve by then and had just finished one of his paintings and, as usual, it was of the little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and the little boy in pyjamas facing it with his back to the painter and his hands behind his back. This one didn’t seem much different to us from the very first one he’d painted, certainly not in the subject matter. He’d got better with the brush, of course, but you can imagine our frustration as parents. But that evening we had a couple of friends over for dinner and they saw the picture on the fridge (Joseph put them there now, a new one every couple of days) and they remarked how good it was. This must have been almost the first time we’d had friends over for dinner, Joseph now old enough to look after himself and Sarah upstairs while the adults ate. Of course, we just thought they were being polite and we thanked them and carried on serving chicken in white wine. But the husband couldn’t keep his eyes off the painting and it started to irritate us, we wanted to enjoy the evening, but he was obviously totally distracted by the painting. Then, in the middle of dessert, he stood up, quite rudely I thought, went straight to the fridge and stared intently at the painting for a couple of minutes. “You must take this to a gallery!” he declared and his wife nodded, equally hypnotised. We could not believe it and just said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” annoyed more than anything.

Even so, we were rather taken aback by their reaction to the painting and we wondered what to do. Perhaps we should take Joseph to a psychologist, find out what was wrong with him. Over the next few days, though, something even more remarkable happened. Our friends started showing up at our door unannounced, obviously a little embarrassed, asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Baffled, we opened the door of course, took them to the kitchen and showed them the fridge. Some of them we had to forcibly eject from the premises, they stood staring for so long. It was nice to have friends, and we were oddly proud that our son was attracting their admiration, but the disruption was a little annoying and we were scared that one of them might tell social services that our son was mentally unstable. But then, after the friends, came the strangers. Complete strangers, not even acquaintances, coming up to our door asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Some even offered to buy it for extravagant sums of money, some people left money on the kitchen table in entrance fees, everybody said how brave we were to keep it in the house and not secure in a gallery. We were on the local news, then national, then the BBC came to our door asking if we would be happy to take part in a documentary about our artistic prodigy son. Of course not, we said, we’re not an artistic family.

Well, we knew it was getting out of hand when an elderly woman fainted – she could have knocked her head and done some serious damage. As it was, she got away with a cracked hip and breathless said, “It was all worth it!” And then of course we had all the doctors around, gawping at the painting – a child’s painting!

So we decided to get rid of it. We asked some auctioneers to come over and value the painting. It sold, quickly, for 1.2 million pounds. That just about knocked our socks off. It was immediately donated to the Tate Modern, a ‘national treasure’. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you? A little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and a little boy with his back to the painter and his hands folded behind his back.

Our son doesn’t paint any more. He’s grown out of it, I suppose. After we sold the Fiat painting, we also sold the real-life Fiat and bought a Bentley. A few weeks later he came home from school saying he’d finished with painting. He never painted anything else, just our little red Fiat. Just one of those things, isn’t it? We still make a living selling the hundreds of other paintings he did during those nine extraordinary years. We’re glad he’s normal again, though, imagine how he would have been bullied at school, doing those funny paintings.

***

Everyone always asks why I didn’t paint anything else, why I don’t paint any more at all, why it was always the Fiat. I only understood when I got to secondary school, I didn’t have a clue why I was painting at the time. Mum says I was three when I started painting the car. I just remember being so confused by it. The colours were insane. I was scared of what I’d seen. I knew it wasn’t right and I sensed at the time that I couldn’t ask mum and dad about it. And then, when my sister was born, I was even more afraid. It scared me, that scene, the red Fiat with the doors thrown open, like it was abandoned, dad jerking away on top of mum.

Ephraim

Ephraim is holding a big orange balloon in front of his face. He knows that very soon it will all be over and the girls who are dancing around the dining room floor will stop. He knows this because he can hear the mothers’ talk getting louder and their footsteps approaching the door.

The girls are swinging each other by the arms on the wooden floor, their bare feet skipping past Ephraim as he tries to hide. At least they’ve stopped calling him to them. They’re of a certain age, these girls, too old to think anything of him, too young to think anything of him. But they don’t realise that Ephraim is old enough, just about.

So he holds the big orange balloon in front of his face and he prays for the mothers to end this embarrassment. How can he bear it?

***

‘I’m sorry, Ephraim the Younger, I can tell you that it only gets worse,’ says Ephraim the Elder, as he sits on a leather-effect bench in a discotheque. Those same girls – and others – are jerking their bodies on the dancefloor in front of him to beats that Ephraim’s head can’t stand. He lifts his bottle of beer in front of his face and drinks in the view. ‘It only gets worse, buddy.’

***

‘You have no idea, you young ones. Much is left to be decided.’ Ephraim the Eldest was a disembodied vase on a shelf in a motel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His china gaze fell on the bed, where two bodies were writhing on top of the stitched bed cover. The sun came in through the window. ‘Have patience.’

***

Ephraim the Youngest swam on ahead, into the waiting world. Leaving his brothers behind. Bold, love has its own way, new life.

London Bridge, Riverside

There’s a fountain, maybe six jets rising from a cobbled paving. A tourist family stops to let the son take a photograph with his new manual camera. The young man, a youth, turns the lens seriously, focusing. He steadies the camera carefully, framing. The other members, five or six of them, gather around behind their serious son, waiting for the artist to finish his work. Suddenly the father, paunch, mid-aged, runs, head down for the fountain. He jumps through the six jets of water, all youth regained. Damp laughter.

Canada Water: A vista

It looks computer generated. Straight lines, an exercise in perspective perhaps. A long flat roof opposite – of a sports retailer. The roof is supported by two storey poles and the shop abuts the water’s edge. Stacked behind this in our perspective game, at an angle receding into the distance is another, taller flat roof. Even the cladding of the building looks computer-pixilated. The Home of Quality Newspapers. A number of other structures poke above this warehouse. One in green, tall towers with sloping roofs.

I notice, now, why the vista looks so odd: none of these buildings have windows, just bare flat greys and greens. It is like the first stages of a computer simulation, before details have been added for realism.

Behind all these foreground buildings, far away, I know, on the other side of the river, is the tower of Canary Wharf. Its light for aircraft flickers on / off sharply. A pyramid in the centre of London. 9.55 am.