Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A standing-still on the wild side

It was a comment by Marley on my last posting that triggered what follows and so it’s a sort of continuation of it. It also gives me an excuse to use another photo of the village.

It’s so long since I played Cluedo that I don’t remember all the possible weapons. Poison, rope, probably dagger, maybe gun, and definitely the imaginative lead pipe (which might be less detectable if the lead was used as a poison rather than the pipe as a blunt instrument). With respect to the creators of the game, though, they’re all pretty obvious – the sort of thing a murderer would be offered if he went to the local store to get ‘something for the wife’. But, for a crime writer, that store is full of items with even deadlier potential – things such as toothbrushes, vitamins or yoghurt.

To show what I mean, try this. Tomorrow, go through part of the day looking for clues and plots. Set yourself up as a victim. Notice how many ways you could be murdered – not by any grandiose scheming, bombs, terrorist attacks, etc. but by the normal trappings of the way you live. Let’s assume you get up and, to give the day an early freshness, you clean your teeth. Who’s had access to your toothbrush since you last used it? Your partner, obviously, and all the other people living in the house. Oh, and the people you had round for dinner yesterday evening. If somebody put the tiniest drop of that stuff from the castor oil plant – Ricin – on the bristles, it would turn your blood into …

(Commercial break begins:
… well, for a full account of what would happen to you, if you haven’t already done so, read The Darkness.
Commercial break ends.)

Next, you maybe pop a vitamin pill or some medication before or after breakfast. Who knows what they are and what contra-indications there are? Again, your partner is the first suspect but no doubt some friends know about it too. The most blatant use of the information would be to tamper with the pills, introduce something nasty which looked like the capsule in question. More subtle, though, would be to find out what reacts badly with them and somehow serve that up to you. Again, it’s something that could be done by any visitor to the house, including guys who come to service the boiler, read the gas or electric meters, or try to get you to become a Jehova’s Witness. (I like the idea of one well-dressed young man sitting quoting the Bible at you while his companion, who’s asked to use your bathroom, quietly adds a deadly tincture to the open wine bottle in the kitchen.)

Then there’s breakfast itself. Is your routine such that anyone watching you shopping can see that you regularly buy a particular breakfast cereal? If so, you’re making it easy for them to target you with some confidence. And so it goes on through the day. Who knows what foodstuffs you prefer? Or where you shop? Who’s watching your movements in and out of the house? Who has access to your dustbins? And what about all the things in your garden shed that you use without suspecting how they might have been contaminated? Why is there a ladder against your neighbour’s wall? What’s in the box they’ve put out with their garbage? Multiply all these questions by the number of people who have access to the various items and you have a complex set of relationships and too many uncomfortable possibilities.

But, you protest, I’m an ideal husband/wife/partner, a model citizen, a hugely respected and admired pillar of the community. Who on earth would wish me such ill? Why would anyone do such things? Well, your reputation, motives and actions may be impeccable but you’ve no idea how others are interpreting them. Remember Estragon’s observation ‘People are bloody ignorant apes’.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t go round in a perpetual state of fear but it’s true that, since I started writing crime novels and stories, I’m always seeing openings and inventing motives where before there were just innocent Jehova’s Witnesses and boiler maintenance men.

So try it tomorrow. Stop as you’re doing a familiar thing and ask how it could be used against you, then ask who could do it, then why. Always ask why. Every action has (or can have) reasons and consequences. There are stories waiting everywhere.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A walk on the wild side

We’re staying with family in a picturesque English village – thatched roofs, cottages, fields, all the images you’d associate with a typical Miss Marple mystery. In fact, it’s the village in which the UK TV drama The Midsomer Murders is filmed. Christmas is a couple of days away. The kids are excited. The overnight snow is quite thick. After breakfast, all gloved and scarfed, I set out to buy the paper – a walk of maybe a mile there and back. Not many people about. As I walk, various alternative scenarios unfold.

A burly man in a tee shirt comes wading through the snow towards me. He’s obviously crazy. No one can step outside the door in these temperatures without proper insulation. He clearly has no nervous system. I know for a fact that he’s going to produce a club, maybe an axe from the hedge beside him and I’ll become a stain on the snow and a headline in tomorrow’s paper (or, rather, a secondary headline because the burly guy will get the lead). As he passes me, he smiles broadly and says a very cheery ‘Good morning’. I smile back, wish him the same, we cross paths and I wait for the axe in the back of my skull. Nothing.

Further down the hill, a woman with an Irish wolfhound. The dog looks lean, hungry, huge. One wrong move from me and it’ll defend its mistress to the death – mine. We pass, the dog doesn’t even look at me. The woman smiles and I get a second ‘Good morning’. When they’re behind me I wait to hear the command ‘Kill’, the crunch of speeding paws in the snow and the hot canine breath on my neck. Nothing.

Near the paper shop a group of old women (not as old as me but old nonetheless) wait at the bus stop, no doubt on their way to their coven. Three of them stand well back, the other two bar the narrow pavement. These are old women, they’ve earned the right to stand where they like. It’s their pavement. I anticipate having to step into the road to get past them. I’m pretty sure that, as I do so, I’ll be struck a glancing blow from an SUV which will break my hip. In the event, as I reach them, they stand back. No ‘Good morning’ but I’m just grateful to get by without mishap or a malevolent spell.

I get the paper. On the way home, I notice a short, steep driveway leading up to one of the cottages and speculate idly about its owner being an old, bespectacled woman driving a Ford Anglia (Miss Marple sans bike maybe) who, in these snowy conditions, would scream round the corner, put the car into a broadside slide, hit the accelerator at the appropriate spot, crest the drive and execute a handbrake turn to skid to the front door and step calmly out with her shopping bag.

Further on, a man stands filming a young girl with a sledge and a dog. He’s looking through branches at her. As the unwelcome images begin to form, the girl calls ‘Hurry up, Daddy. It’s cold.’

I’m almost home and safe again. Striding down the hill comes a tall man with a brisk, military gait and bearing. He’s swinging a black walking stick. Here I should mention that the paper I bought is The Guardian, probably the only UK newspaper free of the influence of people such as Rupert Murdoch and his ilk and notoriously liberal in its views. I imagine the man seeing it and setting about me with his stick, calling me a communist and hoping I rot in hell with all the other pinko, planet-saving homosexual intellectuals who are undermining the way of life he fought for. As I prepare myself for the assault, his face lights up into a big smile and, again, I’m wished a good morning.

Nothing’s wrong with any of these people. They’re good, friendly citizens. The problem is me. I’m the alien. I’m the one carrying the Satanic menace through this country idyll. I obviously read too much.

Monday, 21 December 2009

March/April 0000

To mark the season, a mini dialogue which seems to be about religion but isn’t. It’s triggered by a sentence in The Bible which always fascinated me. I remember very early on hearing that Joseph and Mary were engaged and that, when she told him about being ‘with child’ he was ‘minded to put her away privily’. Back then, I wasn’t sure what it meant – it sounded as if he locked her up somewhere or maybe did even worse Mafia-type things. When I eventually wrote this sketch, it wasn’t about divinity or Christianity or anything, it was simply me imagining a scene between an engaged couple sharing some … well … surprising news. It could have been touching, angry, jammed with revelations and spirituality, or just dull. So please don’t be offended by it. It’s not about religion, it’s about writing.

The scene is a carpenter’s shop. Joe is sawing a particularly difficult tenon joint. He’s interrupted by the sudden arrival of his fiancée Mary. He stops sawing.

JOSEPH: Hello, love. What’s up?

MARY: Joe … We’re going to have to get married.

JOSEPH: Eh? What for?

MARY: I’m pregnant.

JOSEPH: What? I thought you was a virgin.

MARY: I am. But I’m still pregnant.

JOSEPH: I don’t believe it. How could you do that to me?

MARY: No, Joe. I’m still a virgin. Honest.

JOSEPH: Pull the other one. Go and marry the bloke what did it.

MARY: There wasn’t any bloke.

JOSEPH: Oh, Act of God, I s’pose.

MARY: Sort of . . . Let me explain.

JOSEPH: It’d better be good.

MARY: Well, last night, I was in bed asleep, and suddenly I woke up, and there was this bloke standin by the bed. With big wings stickin out the back. He said … Well, he said he was an angel. Called Gabriel.

JOSEPH: And you fell for it?

MARY: No, honest, Joe. He never touched me. He never even put down his harp. He just said I’d found favour with God, and I was going to have a baby boy.

JOSEPH: Just like that.

MARY: Yeah. He said I was goin to be visited. By the Holy Ghost.

JOSEPH: That was his mate, I suppose.

MARY: No. I’m goin to have a baby boy, and he’s goin to be king and rule over the house of David for ever. And I’m to be blessed among women. Oh, and we’ve got to call the baby Jesus.

JOSEPH: Jesus? Well, you should’ve realised he was havin you on when he said that.


JOSEPH: Well, I mean, if he’d said Kevin or Arthur or somethin, it would’ve made sense. But Jesus? … Christ!

MARY: That’s another thing. He’s goin to be a Christ.

JOSEPH: What’s a Christ?

MARY: I dunno. But he’s goin to be one.

JOSEPH: Alright, look. Suppose I do marry you. Is there anything else I ought to know?

MARY: Yeah, we’ve got to go to Bethlehem to have him.

JOSEPH: Bethlehem? That’s bloody miles! And there’s no obstetrical units there or nothin.

MARY: We’ve got to have him in a stable and lie him in a manger.

JOSEPH: A stable and a manger? They’re not making a very good job of it, are they?

MARY: Well, it’s the first time they’ve done a saviour.

JOSEPH: And when’s all this supposed to be happenin?

MARY: Sometime around Christmas.

JOSEPH: I’m not sure about it. Sounds a bit dodgy to me.

MARY: Oh come one, Joe. It’ll be nice.

JOSEPH: Looks like I haven’t got a lot of choice, doesn’t it?

MARY: Not really, no.

JOSEPH: Alright then. I’ll still marry you. Come on, let’s go to bed.

MARY: Oh no, Joe. I’ve got to be the virgin Mary, remember.

JOSEPH: Eh? How long’s that supposed to last?

MARY: Two thousand years. At least.

Happy Christmas everyone. (Or happy holidays if you prefer.)

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Entertaining interlude

Lazy blogging but worth sharing this video sent by my sister (the one who made the cake). No significance, no message, just someone else who doesn't take life too seriously. I hope you like it.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Words, words, words.

I’ve just done one of the relaxing, pleasurable things connected with writing; I read through and signed a contract. And, since the first draft of the book to which it relates has already been written, it means I can sit back, cash the advance (no, it isn’t enough to get a Ferrari or even solve the debt problem of a small uninhabited island but it’s money), and await further instructions.

As I was reading through it, though, it did occur to me that it had probably taken the lawyers a day or so, three at the most, to draw it up and, on a purely word-count basis, their remuneration would be significantly higher than mine. Fine, they studied for their degrees, worked as juniors (or however the system operates today) and, if anything nasty hits the fan, they’ll have to clean it up, so good luck to them.

It is, though, rather ironic that, whereas we (usually anyway) work to make our meanings clear, their technique is to multiply the ‘howevers’, ‘notwithstandings’, ‘heretofores’ and let clauses be as promiscuous as they like and reproduce themselves inside swelling paragraphs which are desperate for the relief/release of a full stop. Different worlds, different words.

Then, when I went to post the signed contract, I stood in the long Christmas queue at the counter and more words jumped out at me. I’ve tried to avoid saying too much here about writers who fail to distinguish between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ and all the rest of them. I’ve come to accept it in general but writers ought to be more respectful of their medium. I'm not talking about conversational speech but prose which has been submitted to editors, agents, publishers, competitions by someone calling him or herself a writer. It’s fine to break the rules of grammar but only if it’s for a purpose and only if you know them in the first place. (I obviously exempt non-native speakers from this opprobrium because English grammar – and pronunciation for that matter – is notoriously difficult when it’s your second language. And because I’m afraid of Scary. And Anneke.)

But I thought these other two examples were interesting in their different ways. First, a woman with a quite refined English accent (I’m in Scotland, remember) said to the server ‘May I purchase this calendar?’
Now there are all sorts of things that could be said about such a request. The calendar was hanging on a hook, with a very evident price tag on it, so the betting was that, yes, she probably would be allowed to buy it. There was the tiniest stress on the word ‘I’ so did she think it was only for sale to a chosen few customers?
But it was the word ‘purchase’ that struck me. Why not ‘buy’? Does she go home to her husband, partner, elderly aunt, or whoever she shares a house with and say ‘I purchased a calendar today, darling/sweetie/Aunt Murgatroyd/whoever’? If she does, it’s delightful to imagine the ensuing conversation, which would be full of:
‘Was the vendor helpful?’
‘Indeed, most accommodating.’
‘Will you be imbibing any wine this evening?’
‘Copious amounts, but first I must micturate.’
I’m not being nasty or superior, I love it that we have these different registers and that people actually use them, but that word ‘purchase’ seemed so incongruous in a shop full of people stressed out with Christmas shopping and having to wait to buy a couple of stamps. But the woman duly purchased her calendar and went home content.

The other example is again grammar-related but interesting in a different way. A young man with a strong Indian accent was posting bundles of cards to places in the UK, France, Canada and Australia. I’ve had one to one sessions with students brought up in India and they speak a much more correct form of English (if slightly outdated) than the majority of British people. One card in each of the bundles had to be weighed to determine the cost of the postage and, at first, through no fault of his own, the man wasn’t doing it right.

The reason was that the man serving him was an Aberdonian and spoke in the local vernacular. On this occasion it wasn’t that the accent was distorting the actual sounds (although that happens very often) but he was making a familiar ‘mistake’ by saying ‘Put one of that cards on the scale’. We all know that, technically, it should be ‘those cards’ – and that’s what the Indian man had been taught, so the mixture of singular and plural had him baffled momentarily. (Another blatant example is the use of the past tense where it should be the past participle – ‘I’d ran to the bus stop’, ‘He’s gave her a present’, etc.)

But I’m definitely not mocking either man. There are many such grammatical ‘mistakes’ that are accepted currency and some of them are perpetrated by characters in my books. If they didn’t speak that way, they wouldn’t be authentic. The important thing is to be understood. I suppose I only noticed it this time because of my struggle with lawyer-speak and the woman’s use of ‘purchase’.

Language is wonderful.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Readers eh? Can’t live with them, etc., etc.

One of the questions I find difficult to answer is the one about whether we have a reader in mind when we write. I know I go on about the characters being free to do what they like but that’s the way it feels. So, in a way, when I’m recording their activities and dialogue, I’m being the reader (sort of). OK, in the end, it’s the writer-me who’s changing things around, editing sentences and segments to get the rhythms ‘right’, but the characters take precedence over almost everything else.

The reason I bring this up, however, is that in the course of answering an email from Jean it struck me that once you’ve blogged a few times and got a few comments you’re aware of your potential (and actual) readers. Which means that the character you’re watching/creating/recording is you and you can begin to anticipate what sort of responses he/it might provoke in the ‘audience’.

Character-Me (CM): OK, smart-arse, prove it.

Writer- Me (WM): What?

CM: Make me do and say things for Scary, Marley, Michael and the others.

WM: It’s not that blatant. It’s more subtle.

(CM yawns.)

WM: Anyway, if I tried that, I’d be bound to offend someone.

CM: Oh, and we can’t have that, can we? Better to stay all bland and cowardly and non-controversial. You’re pathetic. Real writers upset people all the time.

WM: Well, I can do that in books and stories. No need for it here.

CM: Why not?

WM: Because when you start blogging you make … well, sort of friends.

CM: See? You’re a coward.

WM: Why?

CM: That false hesitation there – the ‘well, sort of’ bit. Why be so … apologetic about it? Why not just say friends? Why not commit? You’re afraid you’ll have to send them Christmas cards, aren’t you?

WM: No, I’m not. It’s … oh, you wouldn’t understand.

CM: Huh, I can read you like a book.

WM: Oh yeah?

CM: Yeah. You laugh like hell when you read Michael’s blogs and you know you can’t make him laugh as much so you chuck in big words now and then and pretend to be clever.

WM: That’s not true.

CM: Yes it is – and now you know he’s impressed by you being dumped by a girl to Tchaikovsky, you’re probably looking up the names of other composers to drop into your postings.

WM: That’s rubbish.

CM: No it’s not. You wouldn’t try that with Gary, would you? Gary knows stuff. Gary’s wise. And it’s not just about ancient Greece, it’s about the Beatles and guitars and lyrics. You’re trying to be as smart as he is.

WM: No I’m not. And anyway, Michael’s wise too.

CM: See, covering your backside all the time. So busy not offending people you’re actually licking their …

WM: No I’m not.

CM: Course you are. Same with Jean. She started you blogging. And she interviews real writers for one of her blogs, so you have to impress her, too.

WM: You know, you’re one of the nastiest characters I’ve written for ages.

CM: (Sardonic grin.) Huh, you just don’t like the truth. You’d like Marley to think you’re the writerly equivalent of that bloke whose abdomen you stole to illustrate that blog earlier.

WM: No I wouldn’t. I’ve told them I’m a granddad.

CM: Yeah, why? For the sympathy vote. You just hope they’ll say ‘Poor old bugger’ and let you get away with stuff.

WM: Anyway, before I let you say anything about Marley, I need to check the score in the latest Saints game.

CM: Coward.

WM: Hey shut up with the coward crap.

CM: Ooooh, touched a nerve, have I?

WM: I don’t think you know what nerves are. You’re just spiteful, one of those guys who need to undermine others because of your own inadequacy.

CM: Hmmm. Interesting. You realise I’m you, don’t you?

WM: Er … well, yes. But …

CM: Better keep quiet about the inadequacies then, eh? Better change the subject. Do one of those wandering off at a tangent things to convince Linda you’ve got a quirky way of thinking.

WM: Linda knows what she’s talking about. She’s another who gets other writers involved, encourages them to reveal their methods.

CM: Pity you don’t have a method. You’re too busy creating ‘the right image’.

WM: Huh, well I cocked it up by letting them see you, didn’t I?

CM: Who knows? You’re the writer. Why’ve you let me go on like this? Why can’t you be like Scary?

WM: What d’you mean?

CM: You’ve read her blog. What you see is what you get. She’s funny and she says exactly what she thinks. God knows why she comes here to read this rambling garbage.

WM: Hey, you know nothing about any of them. For example, did you know that Sheila was a ‘Mongrel Christian’?

CM: Course I did. I read her profile. What beats me is why she reads your unbelieving, absurdist nonsense.

WM: Because Christians forgive maybe. Anyway, in the last blog of hers I read she had the sentence ‘Mum’s here with Christmas in her smile’. I think that’s great.

CM: Look, if you want this to be a real conversation, can you cut out the sycophancy?

WM: Hmmm, thanks. Sycophancy. Michael’ll like that. So will Anneke.

CM: Oh no, I’m not doing your obfuscation for you. Hey, stop it.

WM: What?

CM: Making me say stuff like ‘obfuscation’. Next you’ll have me questioning whether Schoenberg’s atonal music really was degenerate art. Damn. That’s for bloody Michael, isn’t it?

WM: Maybe. Anyway, what I’d really like you to do for me now is an exegetical analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, or perhaps a quick ‘Existentialism for Beginners’.

I’m sorry to have to report that, at that point, Character-Me clapped his hand over his mouth and refused to continue. See? The writer always gets his/her way.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Godot rest ye merry, gentlemen (and ladies)

OK, for the purposes of this aside on the festivities, let’s leave kids out of the equation. Christmas for them is different. Never mind that the Star of Bethlehem doesn’t move nearly as fast as the flashes from their magnums as they play the kindergarten equivalent of Grand Theft Auto – there are sparkly things everywhere, a huge tree is suddenly growing and twinkling inside the house and the fat guy with the red gear is on his way. My cynicism about it all is barely disguised but I genuinely am happy that it makes kids happy.

But this isn’t about the kids’ Christmas (or the Christmas for genuine believers, which, again, I acknowledge is something different and something special). This is about Christmas for heathens such as me and even those heathens who still pay lip-service to the notion that it’s somehow connected with a religious faith.

I used to get angry about the whole thing – all the enforced jollity, the contagion of Santa’s ‘Ho-ho-ho’. I found it sad that people were nice to one another just because it was Christmas and couldn’t see that it would be good to be like that right through the year. Why not be happy, caring and ho-ho-ho-ish because it’s Tuesday or October or late afternoon? I didn’t like the profits made from crap goods that wouldn’t even last until bedtime. I couldn’t see the point of sending a card to someone ‘because they’d sent one to you’. I was the guy wandering amongst all the ever-so-jolly adverts, listening to George Michael, Wizzard and Slade belting out their singalongs in all the shops and muttering ‘Bah humbug’ at every opportunity. I was the pre-ghosts Scrooge minus his miserliness.

Then, lo, it came to pass (several years ago, actually) that the scales fell from my eyes and I realised what I’d known all along – that’s it’s the festival of Godot. Waiting for Godot is about all sorts of things. It’s bleak and yet very funny, it’s simultaneously theatrical and anti-theatrical, and it sums up marvellously how we live our lives. I want everyone who reads this to have a wonderful happy time, so I won’t stress (well, not much, anyway) the essential self-deception of waiting for something which never happens, but that’s what Christmas is. The anticipation begins earlier and earlier each year – and that’s marvellous, because there’s a feeling of direction, purpose, a reason to do particular things. The excitement and magic is a daily experience, through late October, November, December.

The mistake is to assume it’s building up TO something. It’s not. Nothing could match the build-up, so Christmas Day arrives, then goes. And almost at once the newspapers start including supplements about summer holidays. Philip Larkin’s poem Next, Please is a powerful evocation of our Waiting for Godot lives and, although it’s not about Christmas, it encapsulates the season. I’m not going to quote it because its truth (for an unbeliever) may seem uncomfortable (and for a believer, it’s just plain wrong).

And no, I’m not just being a miserable old bugger. I’m having a good time. I like the excitement, the gaudiness, the superficial impression that everything’s OK really. I love the wonder in the faces of the younger kids and the naked, smiling acquisitiveness of the older kids who’ve learned how to work the system. And I actually think it’s a shame that, in the USA, political correctness has emasculated the bluff, complex cheer of ‘Merry Christmas’ and substituted for it the bland ‘Happy Holidays’.

But I really, really do want everyone (of all faiths or none) to have a great time. So Happy Christmas to all.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

I forgot to mention something else. I suspect (and hope) that anyone reading this will be far too young to remember a series of adverts for White Rain. They were based on creating mystery and stimulating curiosity. Following their example, I’ll be mentioning The Sparrow now and again over the next couple of months (or less) (or more) with the sole intention of piquing your curiosity to such an extent that you’ll be sending me barrowloads of pounds and dollars to tell you what it’s all about. For the moment, as I said on my Facebook page, all I’m prepared to reveal is that the Sparrow may be stirring. (I also added a comment about Winston Churchill’s reply to the news that his fly was open but I won’t repeat that here since I’m aware of the gentility of my readers and would hate to sully any sensibilities.)

There are plenty of examples of writers who’ve produced great stuff by imposing restrictions on themselves. Beckett wrote in French to stop himself giving in to his facility with English. The French classical dramatists interpreted the ‘rules’ of Aristotle very tightly and had to write in Alexandrines and stick to the 3 unities. But their constraints were easy to cope with compared with the things the members of a group called Oulipo do. I’d vaguely heard about them before but they were featured in a recent BBC podcast and I was amazed to hear the sort of difficulties they create to make the writing process even trickier.

The name comes from a French expression meaning ‘workshop for potential literature’. (It could only be French, couldn’t it?) The group’s been going for fifty years and you can only join if you’re invited to. If you ask to become a member, that guarantees that you never will. Mind you, when you hear the sort of constraints they impose on themselves, you probably decide a visit to the supermarket or a few hours spent staring at a wall would be a better way to spend your time.

I’d heard of Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which doesn’t have the letter ‘e’ in it. What I didn’t know was that it had been translated into English by Gilbert Adair (again with no ‘e’s). He then used all those ‘e’s that he’d ‘saved’ to write a novella called Les Revenentes which uses ‘e’ but no other vowels. A Canadian poet, Christian Bök, was interviewed on the programme and he’d written a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters. Michel Thaler wrote a novel with no verbs in it. And so it goes on. One poet, whose name I’ve forgotten, wrote a book of ten sonnets whose pages were cut in such a way that you can create any 14-line sequence you like out of them. To see what he meant, imagine those kids’ books which have a head, body and legs on 3 separate segments of the page so that you can create different combinations by matching the different heads, bodies and feet. The mathematical permutations when you have 10 poems of 14 lines each are such that it’s effectively a book you can never finish reading.

The theory is that this triggers ideas, inspiration, and forces you to ‘think outside the box’ (apologies for such a gross cliché). But, apart from it being an entertaining sort of game to play for one’s own amusement or a way of saying to the world ‘Look how clever I am’, it’s hard to warm to the idea. I think imposing restrictions is valuable. I used to get students to remove all the adjectives and adverbs from a piece to show them how it affects the narrative tone and pace and, indeed, changes meanings, but these arbitrary and very severe restrictions seem to work against full creativity. You may produce something which obeys all the rules but I can’t help but think that, in doing so, you must surely have had to discard insights and images that would have added to the message you were conveying. It’s form taking precedence over meaning , and the two shouldn’t (and can’t, in my book) be separated.

The one exception I’ve found to that in my own experience is the Fibonacci poem. I’m not a poet and I’m not sure I understand much of the contemporary poetry I read but there’s a beauty and mysterious naturalness about ‘Fibs’, as their devotees call them, which is very beguiling. They’re based on the Fibonacci sequence (which is the thing behind the arrangement of sunflower seeds, the whirl on a snail’s shell, etc.) The sequence of numbers is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Each number is the sum of the previous two. The poems consist of a first and second line with one syllable each, the third then has two, the fourth three and so on. A silly example would be:

Exist in my feet.
They are too far from my ego.


My ego’s safe inside my skull
Far from treading feet.
Held in my

You can write as many lines as you like and even reverse the sequence, which creates interesting shapes on the page too. Mind you, as the final example shows, it can draw you into pretentiousness. I wrote this to try to exploit those shapes. It’s even called Natural Cycle. (Remember, I said I’m NOT a poet.)

Traffic congests and
Planes and trains and automobiles
And all the cacophonic crush of city living
Build to the midday madness, the clamour for success.
The energy drives down the sun
Until the evening

Stirs itself,
And through the darkness
Songs and screams and cries for mercy
And all the lust and hate and buried barbarism
Herald the bleak survival of visceral defeat.
Oblivion crawls through the blood,
The passions falter,
And the sun

I’m certainly not exposing these efforts to suggest any talent on my part but rather to encourage you to have a go. Not necessarily with a view to publication, or even for others to read, but to see and feel how having to work to strict rules can also be liberating.

But, to finish, another example of an Oulipo-type product. One of their techniques is called n+7. It involves replacing each noun in a text by the noun which comes 7 places after it in the dictionary. The programme had one about the Creation which ended with God saying ‘Let there be limit’, which I rather liked. So I’ve just recast perhaps the most famous opening novel sentence as follows: It is a tube universally acknowledged, that a single mandala in possession of a good founder, must be in want of a wildebeest.