Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Vitamin pills, toilet rolls and philosophy.

I don’t know if it’s a writer-type thing but in many ways I inhabit a strange world. Let me give you a couple of examples:
• Most mornings I take a multi-vitamin pill. I know, I know, the scientists have proved that they make no difference but I’ve been doing it for years and, since it doesn’t seem to have harmed me, why stop?

Anyway, the pills are in the normal sort of container, which I tip and shake in order to ‘dispense’ one into my hand. But sometimes, two or three come out, occasionally with such force that they bounce off my palm to roll across the work surface. And so my mind starts speculating about them. Is it an escape bid? If so, what do they intend to escape to and what for? I mean, how many career choices does a vitamin pill have? Alternatively, it might be a suicide mission, clamouring for my attention, each wanting to be the one I choose to send down into the acids that await them. So deciding which ones to put back becomes a question of ethics.

And the speculation continues. What’s life like for them inside their container? They just lie there, cuddled up against one another in the dark, for around 24 hours, at which point they start realising that one of them will soon be taking its last journey. Is the boredom of such an existence so great that they try to shuffle to the top of the heap to give themselves a chance of being that lucky one? Or is being part of that tight, localised community reassuring to such an extent that they burrow down to make sure they stay a little longer with all their pill pals? Do they, in the other 23+ hours, discuss their condition, share their angst?

And when it comes down to there being just two left, then one … well, the scenario is appalling. Those last two obviously didn’t want to go, they’ve avoided the drop into my palm but it’s now become inevitable. And I feel sorry for them.

• For the second example, I won’t go into the same amount of detail for reasons which will be obvious. It involves toilet rolls. No, I don’t mean is it better to be one of the sheets at the outside end of the roll in order to get it over with quickly. After all, the manufacturers have dictated the fate of the individual sheets and, if you’re on the outside, that’s it. It’s rather like our Great British aristocratic hierarchy. – some of us are just cheap, thin tissues on the roll of life, others double-padded, dimpled, luxury creations. We’re all headed for the same … er … end, but have wildly different experiences before we get there.

So my concern isn’t with individual sheets, but with the rolls themselves. You see, my toilet roll holder is a sort of stainless steel pole which sits on its base on the floor and holds three rolls, one on top of the other. I have the power to grant long, long life to the roll at the bottom while those stacked above it, especially the top one, exist for mere weeks. The ethical dilemma this time is whether, in fairness to each roll, when the top one is finished with, I should just put a new one back on top of the other two or move them up and put the new roll on the bottom. (Notice my admirable restraint here as I avoid exploiting the juxtaposition of the words ‘toilet paper’ and ‘bottom’ to make ribald jokes.)

And that, friends, is the nature of the strange world I mentioned. I find myself giving inanimate objects feelings, desires, ambitions. I feel sorry for them, admire their fortitude, courage and stoicism, I empathise with things such as staples and glue.

Which is, of course, stupid. But it’s stupid in a specific way because I’m imposing my values on them. Just because I lead a meaningless existence, it doesn’t mean that they do. Vitamin pills, toilet rolls and all the other things are brought into the world with a single, specific, dedicated purpose. And they fulfil their destiny. The pill delivers its goodies into my system and vanishes, just as it was ordained it should. In other words, all these things are much better off than I am. They have the security of a function.

In fact, now I come to think of it, they should be feeling sorry for me.

Not a blog, but a question

A friend has been trying to post comments recently but has just been getting error messages. I just wanted to ask if anyone else is having the same problem and I'd be grateful if you'd just try commenting on this. You don't need to say anything of substance - a punctuation mark would do. If I get no responses, I'll know something's wrong and can try to correct it. Thanks in advance. Oh, by the way, the next blog will be about vitamin pills and toilet rolls. Bet you can't wait.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Food, glorious food.

This will be a moan. I’m blessed with a wife who’s a wonderful cook. She knows about flavours, combinations, health stuff and is far more creative than most of the restaurants in Aberdeen (and elsewhere for that matter). The highest compliment I can pay a restaurateur is to say that his/her food is just like we eat at home.

I don’t know if it’s the same elsewhere but in the UK, the TV is crammed with cookery programmes. AND FOR THE MOST PART I HATE THE PREMISS THEY’RE ALL BASED ON. Sorry, I must calm down and explain. Let’s start back in the late 80s. I made a series of programmes in France about various aspects of French culture and one of them, naturally enough, focused on food and leisure. At the time, we’d all at last moved out of that vile ‘nouvelle cuisine’ phase – you know the one, where a chef would cut a pea into maybe 7 or 8 slices, arrange them in a crescent in the middle of a plate the size of a basketball court, put 3 millimetres of something red near them and charge you £17.99 for it. BUT …

…when I interviewed a lecturer in the cookery school of an excellent college of commerce in Agen, where we’d just eaten a delicious lunch cooked by the students, he insisted that ‘presentation’ was a very important part of the discipline they had to learn. And presentation has come to prevail. So what do we get nowadays?

I could sort of understand it when they turned radishes into miniature roses or created crenellated carrots or turned beetroots into red spaghetti, but they’ve gone mad now. First it was towers of things – the same basketball plate but now with a tube of layered stuff in the middle with a sprig of flat parsley stuck in the top, or maybe a biscuit made out of a thin slice of pig. But soon that wasn’t enough. They had first to drizzle stuff, then drizzling was passé so they took ages making a flavour-filled sauce then put a small dollop of it somewhere on the plate and scraped it with a spoon to form a smear. This smear was neighbour to a minute portion of salmon or rabbit or venison or lamb or Gloucester Old Spot which was sliced into a small fan with some fragments of coloured things (one assumed vegetables) arranged on and around it. Nearby, if you were lucky, might be a fraction of a potato carved and teased into a curly or flat shape. And it could even be dusted with something that might be an exotic spice but looked like dandruff.

And then, pièce de résistance and horror of horrors, worse than Bram Stoker’s vilest imaginings, like something out of a bedside spittoon in a hospital, some ingredients whipped up into FOAM. Why, oh why does it never occur to these Michelin-starred chefs that their delicious, slaved-over foam looks exactly like throat-clearings? Who on earth wants to eat, however delicious it’s supposed to be, mucus?

But still the critics and the top chefs crave good presentation. Bafflingly, people who’ve sweated their apprenticeships out over years in hot kitchens spend hours arranging things on plates which (please let me remind you, ladies and gentlemen) are going to be scooped up with a fork, chewed and swallowed. OK, I don’t want to be served a plate with a grey lump on it, but I’m equally against risking being called a vandal because my fork desecrates a work of art. Food can look good without being made to resemble a Matisse.

I’m not a food philistine. I love eating, and no, I don’t just want huge platefuls of any old thing. But I want the chefs who prepare the stuff I eat (and for which I pay lumps of cash) to concentrate on getting the flavours and combinations right rather than on turning my plate into a Turner prize entry.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Write. Write. Right? Right.

On March 11th, I ended a posting with the words ‘So now, after all that, no excuses. Let writing commence.’ Which proves that this whole blogging business is fundamentally flawed. You can say what you like about anything and, as long as you don’t actually write the words down, you can always retract or amend or otherwise neuter them. But the minute they’re in print (or in whatever the medium is that makes these letters form on your screen), they’re immutable, they’re FACTS.

(OK, I know for the married people among you, the same is true of speech. You’ll all have been faced with – or yourself said – something like ‘But I remember you saying how much you liked Rock Hudson’ or ‘Why don’t you like that shirt I bought? Blue’s your favourite colour. You told me that one Tuesday afternoon in 1986.’)

So, a confession: while some writing has ‘commenced’ (blogs, reviews, emails, interviews, flash fiction and tiny stories for the highly entertaining, the particular task I was referring to back then is still embryonic. Oh, I have plenty of excuses, some of them even legitimate, but it’s salutary to reflect that when I wrote that, I meant it. OK, I’m still waiting for permission to look at some literature on early 19th century melodramas and the decision to read Charlotte Bronte to get more of a feel for the period has eaten into my time, but now other things are clamouring for attention.

Soon, the proofs for The Figurehead will be arriving because that’s due to appear in May. There’s also a May deadline for short stories for the annual Crime Writers’ Association anthology (this year’s theme – Original Sins). And an email yesterday confirmed that I’ll be writing two more books in the Brilliant series, both of which need to be finished before October. I say all this not to boast or tell you how important I am (you know that already), but to reinforce my advice to be careful what you blurt out in unguarded moments. I think in future I’ll only say ‘Let writing commence’ or the equivalent when I’ve already finished the work in question.

And none of this leaves time to develop the guru persona I was so intent on projecting a while back. So I need to reel you back in and continue the indoctrination process. Remember then, O Children of the Oasis …
the midnight butterfly sings no dirges
unbridled passion is merely a fragment of the silver spiral of consent
when the salmon leaps, the quivering petals succumb
and chocolate is brilliant, especially with nuts in it.

So now let (pick a noun) (pick a verb).

Oh, by the way, for those of you who don't visit Facebook often (or at all), I've posted the prologue of The Sparrow Conundrum there. It's not long, and it's supposed to be funny (just in case that isn't obvious).

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

My own Bermuda Triangle

For a change, I had all sorts of ideas about what to put into this blog but they’ve all been pushed aside by a mystery – which I’ll share with you. The observant among you will have noticed that I’ve added a tracker called feedjit. It puts little red dots over the world map and shows how I’m progressively colonising North America, the UK, bits of Europe and tiny pockets of land in Asia and Australasia. But it also has a real-time option, which tells me more about my visitors, what drew them to me and how long they spent in my company. And this is where the mystery lies.

Forgive me now giving you a list of places but it’s part of the enigma. So, in the period I’m sampling for this posting, I had 2 visits from Scotland (Airdrie and Johnstone) and 12 from England (Manchester, Preston, Keighley, Kidlington (4 visits) and London (5)). The 12 English visits were balanced by 12 from the USA (Bronson (3) and the wonderfully named Nacogdoches (2) – both in Texas, Brooklyn (New York) Hayward and San Francisco (California), Missoula and Plains (Montana), Seattle and Tampa). There were 4 from Australia (Hunters Hill and Greenwich – both in New South Wales and one of whom, bizarrely, was sent here in a search for Gary Corby), and 2 visits from Elwood, Victoria, which I mistook first of all for a name and wondered whether I’d ever met a Victoria Elwood. And last, but definitely not least, came people from Bombay (Maharashtra), Makati (Manila) and 4 visits from the truly exotic Minnertsga, Friesland.

OK, you say, so what? Well, to begin with, rather than being drawn here by my magnetic personality, infinite charm and quiet desperation, many came simply in search of an answer to the question ‘What makes a good novel?’ which was the title of one posting. But, dear friends, that’s merely an aside because it’s the 5 visitors I haven’t yet mentioned whose details hint at the central mystery.

The first came from Birmingham (UK) and stayed for a mere 26 seconds. The next was from the City of London and stayed slightly longer (42 seconds) and the third, from Riverton (Wyoming) was here for 51 seconds. If I ever meet the final two, I owe them a drink because they stayed long enough to read something. The one from Amsterdam, Noord-Holland lingered a whole 3 minutes 11 seconds but the champion came from Englewood, Colorado and wasted an enormous 6 minutes 37 seconds of his/her life in my company.

Again, so what? Well, this is where my crime writer’s observational skills come into play. I know the time and date the last 5 arrived, and when they left. But what about all the others? The ones in the first list? I know when they arrived BUT THERE'S NO INDICATION THAT ANY OF THEM LEFT. SO THEY MUST STILL BE HERE.

But where? What are they doing? Some have been here for days. What are they eating? How are they surviving? Are their bosses and families missing them? It’s a huge responsibility for me to know that my wit and wisdom have ensnared so many. That idle comment I made about being a guru has come back to haunt me. I’ll have to start leaving plates of biscuits here and cans of some sort of beverage. And what if the influx continues? We’re all aware of the dangers of overpopulation. What if Oxfam and the Red Cross start sending food parcels and medical supplies? Can Médecins sans Frontières operate inside a blog?

Don’t get me wrong. My blog welcomes immigrants but, for their own safety they need to be led towards the more seemly locations – the jokey bits not the bits about existentialism. I don’t want them to be hi-jacked by some rogue philosopher who’s camped there and may force them to consider Aristotelian syllogisms day after day or read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

So, if you’re there and you’re reading this, let me know and we’ll see if you can’t be repatriated or transferred to a blog whose sanity is uncompromised, where laughter, poetry and common sense prevail. Now let me think. I’m sure I’ve visited such a place recently.