Monday, 23 November 2009

A dish eaten cold

It’s 1975. Aberdeen. The beginning of the school year. My daughter needs new shoes. I take her into town. We visit many shoe shops and the silences between us grow longer, the tension mounts higher in each shop. The problem is that we’re not rich and I want her to have shoes that’ll withstand the rigours of school playgrounds whereas she wants things with sparkly bits on them. The expedition ends with nothing having been bought, a ride home in a simmering silence shot through with electric menace, and a resolution on my part never ever to go near a shop with her again.

Now it’s 2007. Brighton. The beginning of another school year. My daughter, who now has four children of her own, needs to get shoes for the eldest. I accompany them. My daughter is far more reasonable than I am as her efforts to persuade her daughter to accept sensible shoes are met with downcast eyes and ‘proofs’ that they’re ugly and that the sparkly ones would be a much better investment. This time, I’m in the sparkly camp. The expedition ends shoeless and in relative silence, broken only by my barely-suppressed, self-satisfied chuckles.

I always liked schadenfreude but when it has a personal twist, it’s even more profoundly satisfying. Grandchildren are a parent’s revenge.

The picture, by the way, is of a 'Garbo' by Carvela which retails at a very reasonable £150. (Aye, right.)

Friday, 20 November 2009

Pomp, circumstance and real stuff

First, the photo – since Marley pointed out that pictures make blogs more attractive and I don’t particularly want to encourage individuals who give a false idea of what men look like (the way the guy did on my last blog), I’m opting for the next best thing (apparently), cute kittens. This one is courtesy of

But it has nothing to do with the blog. In fact, as with the last one, I was intending to write about one thing when a second occurred to give the first a different perspective. That’s the sort of thing that’s behind many of my short stories and plays. I keep a cutting from a newspaper or a note I’ve made and it just sits there waiting. Then along comes something else which completes it or contradicts it or energises it in some way or another and I write about it. That’s less so the case with novels because they develop in such a leisurely way that what may begin as two incidents soon multiplies into several.

Anyway, I spent last weekend visiting my daughter and her two sons in Glasgow. I had a great time but one event set me musing. Every night she reads them a story and, when they’re in bed, sings them a song. I’m not sure how often she changes the song but every time I’ve heard it it’s been ‘Starry, starry night’, or whatever the correct title is. She has a sweet voice, is pitch perfect and it sounds lovely drifting through from the boys’ room. So the two of them are lying there in the dark hearing this just before they go to sleep and I projected into the future and imagined them as grown men, middle aged even, and how suddenly hearing the song broadcast on whatever the medium will be then might affect them. The potential for drama, poignancy, joy, sorrow is enormous.

And I think that’s the way the writing imagination works. Set up a scenario – a man has just had a huge violent row with his wife, or he’s heard the news that he’ll be the next CEO of a major international company, or the doctor calls him in for the results of his tests, or he’s standing in the empty rooms of the house he’s just sold before emigrating to New Zealand, or his wife’s left him – and so on and so on. And, at one of these extremes, he hears the song, or another song that triggers the memory of his mother’s voice.

I know it’s not an original thought. Noel Coward, after all, wrote ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (which, by the way, isn’t as well expressed as it might be; ending the quip with ‘is’ weakens it significantly – the sentence should climax with ‘cheap music’. If only he'd known me, he could have been such a good writer). There were also those powerful plays and films by Dennis Potter which made fantastic use of many old standards. But in this case, it’s the juxtaposition of a moment of exquisite security and loving with perhaps some future turmoil that set me thinking about how the narratives of our lives are far more subtle and textured than many of the fictions we find so entertaining.

And it was while I was wondering how to develop that notion into a blog that we had here in the UK the absurd charade of the Queen’s Speech. For those of you unfamiliar with the rituals, here’s a brief summary.

Queen arrives, puts on special robes and imperial crown, goes into the Lords and says ‘My Lords, pray be seated". Then she nods at the Lord Great Chamberlain to fetch the House of Commons. The LGC lifts his wand (seriously, his wand) to signal to Black Rod (don’t ask) to go and get them. Off he trots (with a police inspector who says "Hats off, Strangers!" to everyone they pass en route). As he gets near to the doors to the Chamber of the Commons, they’re slammed in his face. He has to knock three times with his staff (the Black Rod), and then they let him in.

Oh, that’s enough. I can’t go on. At least the MPs are wearing normal clothes. Everyone else is in breeches, gold stuff, silly hats. It’s embarrassing. And as I was watching all these (apparently) important people doing very silly things, the contrast with the intensity and reality of personal experiences struck me very forcibly. I know that many non-UK residents find these ceremonies admirable and envy us the traditions and so on but how absurd that people who are deciding to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to cope with the global financial crisis, initiating legislation on health, education, crime, poverty and all the rest have to take part in a pantomime.

That ‘starry, starry night’ drifting through the darkness is in a different realm of truth from the pomp, circumstance and ermine robes of our lords, masters (and a tiny sprinkling of ladies).

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The compound accessory reproductive organs of female mammals

This one’s triggered by two things. First, having been accused on Michael Malone’s May Contain Nuts (justifiably, I must confess) of a typical male obsession with the contents of bras, I feel a compulsion to explain myself. Second, from that starting point I arrived at messages on t-shirts and a particularly nasty one. Together, they seem to make it worthwhile posting this. (You may disagree.)

The point de départ, then. The fact that the Sun newspaper in the UK was a hit from day one because it featured a topless page 3 ‘girl’ every day immediately relegates anyone who admires the curves of breasts to a dark, onanistic underclass. There, we (I’m including myself for the moment because I haven’t yet offered any exculpatory evidence to indicate otherwise) hunch in our shifty, fetid corners, slavering, drooling and unconsciously giving in to Freudian longings and urges centred around deeply-buried memories of contented suckling. We’re primitive, unreconstructed creatures led not by what’s in our skulls but rather by an organ that has little to do with rational behaviour. Along with the ‘obsession’ goes the assumption that we have society’s permission to whistle at the owners of the admired appendages, make lubricious remarks and generally be thought of as ‘one of the lads’.

No point trying to deny that the world is crawling with such still-to-evolve individuals. And they make it difficult to articulate a case for the defence. For them, women and their component parts are sex objects, full stop. So how can I say that I find breasts (and many other anatomical bits of women) attractive? I have no urge to grab them, but they’re a source of innocent (yes, innocent) pleasure. (By the way, I'm not impressed by sheer size and certainly not by lumps of silicone such as those which the famous novelist Katie Price hangs on her collar bones, or by whatever it is that's been clamped to the top of Mrs Beckham's rib cage.) It would sound defensive, evasive, even insincere to claim that my response is aesthetic but it’s closer to that than to depraved. I really wish it were possible to tell women one passes in the street that they look good or walk beautifully without fear of being arrested for accosting them and/or making lewd suggestions. Surely they’d be happy to know that they were being appreciated in a totally unthreatening way.

Anyway, this led to the t-shirt messages because, if one’s gaze tends reflexively to drop to chests, one reads all sorts of quips on them and, surprisingly often, they relate to the things which the t-shirt is concealing. Scrawled across two rather large mounds on one were the words:


Another, which I saw in an illustration rather than being worn, had a ‘C’ on the front of the right arm and an ‘L’ on the front of the left. The front of the garment carried other specially chosen symbols, to create this overall effect:


You’ve no doubt seen your own (or maybe even have favourites which you wear) so I won’t multiply the examples. (And, for a wee aside, which has nothing to do with the central point of all this, my favourite t-shirt message is one I saw on a man in one of the less affluent areas of Glasgow. He was an ordinary guy but his t-shirt told everyone:


That is class.)

Anyway, to my final point. On a bus in St Andrews, two of my fellow passengers were biker types – not bikers the way Marlon Brando was a biker in The Wild One, but overweight, unattractive, greasy haired slouchers. They were probably in their early twenties but they didn’t look scary or threatening. Then, when they walked to the front to get off, I saw the message they had stitched across the back of their leather jackets:


If it weren’t such a chilling thought that these individuals considered such an assertion worth sharing with the world, their infinitely sub-Wildean wit could be the source of amused speculation about the number of live girls who’d taken one look at them and said ‘no’ in ways which confirmed their essential impotence. To me, the brash proclamation was born of fear, inadequacy. Let’s face it, you don’t get street cred by confessing to necrophilia. But, for all that these were two sad, unpleasant individuals incapable of seeing how self-defeating their boast was, it left a nasty taste in my mouth and a sadness which soured the rest of the day. And, in the end, I wonder whether the innocence I claim for my appreciation of how women look isn’t after all on the same spectrum as the bikers’ message. I bloody well hope not.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Titles and stuff

I’m lousy at titles. That’s why this blog has such a lazy name. I imagine strangers browsing blog titles to see if anything catches their fancy and (assuming that they’re not looking for specialist material such as ‘Lesbian Kangaroos and their Soft Furnishing Preferences’) quickly passing over the shapeless ‘livingwritingandotherstuff’ to click on grab-you-by-the-throat tags such as ‘GET PUBLISHED’ or ‘WRITE RIGHT, RIGHT? RIGHT’ and perhaps ‘SATAN’S SHOELACE’. (Apologies to any bloggers who may actually have already chosen such gems for their musings.)

On the other hand, making a title specific does commit you to stick to the point. So if you make your point ‘living’, then add ‘writing’, and cover other eventualities with a generic term – ‘stuff’, you’ve created a broad, non-committal context in which to chronicle your torpor or the paucity of noteworthy events in your daily trudge. (And that’s exactly the sort of sentence Elmore Leonard would delete as he re-read it because it ‘sounds like writing’. I’m always reminded of a play in the 70s – I think – which was a hit and starred Albert Finney. One of his lines was something like ‘lurching [or maybe stumbling] from one derelict sunset to the next’. Great words, but not the sort of thing you hear people saying to one another at the check-out.)

But what prompted me to start writing about this? Well, with the focus having been so exclusively on getting the recent book written, I realise that living and writing (and other stuff for that matter) are quite often all the same thing for me. Maybe that’s why Linda chided me for my girlie tendency to analyse – for a lot of the time, I live in my head with my characters. It’s easier to interact with them. I know who they are. I (mostly) know what they’re going to say and do (although, of course, they’re constantly surprising me). But when you’re dealing with real people, who the hell knows what’s going on in their heads? I may have mentioned this before, but it’s one of the reasons why writers find their fiction more real than reality.

So (apart from when I get Facebook messages from a granddaughter telling me I look like a monkey but she loves me anyway), most of my milestones relate to writing. And at last I’m getting to the point because I wanted to tie up a couple of leitmotifs which seem to crop up here (too) frequently – first, another plug for me and second, my laziness.

The plug.
Next year is looking promising. I’ve already mentioned the publication of my historical crime novel, The Figurehead. That’ll be in May. The book I’ve just finished should be ready by the Spring. And I learned recently that one of my short stories has been chosen for the annual anthology Best British Crime Stories edited by Maxim Jacubowski. That should be out in March. I've also got a sci-fi short story (my first) being published in the anthology Maybe Tomorrow by Mythica Publishing.

The laziness.
So, with two books and a story due to appear, I can relax and indulge myself in the usual fantasies of fame and wealth. Add to that the fact that I have two more Jack Carston novels completed and ready for submission, plus a black comedy which sends up the crime genre so that should keep things ticking over. Now, if any publisher were shrewd enough to buy the unpublished ones, it would mean that I could sit back and do bugger all for the whole of 2010.