Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The return of the guest

Thanks to those of you who supported my call for another gem from my brother, Ron. It had the desired effect and, as you’ll see when you read it, it brings a much-needed breath of culture to this fetid spot. (As a bonus, and quite unsolicited, it also does a bit of PR for The Figurehead.) Ladies and Gentlemen, give it up for (I believe that’s the current terminology) the inimitable Ron Kirton.

I’m taking a break from reading “The Figurehead” for two reasons:
Firstly, I am flattered by my brother’s thought that another blog entry from me will raise his profile but, chiefly, it was Scary’s directness in her posting of July 25th which led me to take the bait. The last time my name was uttered more than once by a woman was in 1963, when The Crystals sang it in their hit, “Da doo Ron Ron” (although, bizarrely, the object of their Crystalline desire was called Bill.)

“I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still,
Da doo Ron Ron Ron, da doo Ron Ron.
Somebody told me that his name was Bill,
Da doo Ron Ron Ron, da doo Ron Ron.”

But that’s as cute as this piece is going to get because I’m going to break an unwritten rule of this blog and have a moan.

Earlier this year I read an article in The Sunday Times about “a team of art sleuths” who had set out “…to crack a string of historical conundrums posed by the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Van Gogh.” The sleuths were about to present their findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego. (I believe the findings were also published in an issue of “Sky and Telescope” magazine). I’ll give you a flavour.

“A mysterious flood cited by the Franklin in The Canterbury Tales has been linked to a freak tide in Brittany on December 19th, 1340.”
These words from Hamlet – the “same star that’s westward of the pole”- refer to the Tycho star, or supernova, of 1572.

So far, so what, you ask. Well, instead of being enlightened, I’m angry when I learn that these detectives have pinpointed the exact time and day on which Van Gogh painted his “Moonrise.” (July 13th 1889, at 9.08pm local time, since you ask). The number of experts involved and the materials and methods they used: lunar cycles, Van Gogh’s letters, computer calculations, aerial photographs, weather charts, etc, are bewildering, though not as bewildering (to me) as the question hanging over their researches, namely, WHY?

I guess one simple answer is, “Because they can”, and I’m willing to accept that, in the name of science, not everything is going to be plain for ordinary mortals like me. But how does it benefit me to know that the blood-red sky in Munch’s “Scream” has nothing to do with the artist’s state of mind or the mania he was seeking to convey, but more to do with the volcanic dust thrown up after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883? My frustration comes to a head, but then is gradually eased, when I read of one sleuth’s current project, “…to calculate the times at which Monet painted Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross bridge from the Savoy Hotel in 1900-01.” And there it is, veiled by my naivety: my own little clue. You can just see their funding application; “…we envisage our researches will necessitate detailed observations from the Savoy, possibly taking a number of weeks.” And I bet it was nice down in the south of France, searching for that Moonrise, in July. Advancement of Science? This is no less than the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists.

(I mentioned the article to my friend Sunderland George, something of a scientist himself, who thought that he might approach the same funding agency to support his own vital research into why the tassles sometimes fall off the nipples of exotic dancers.)

I, meanwhile, shall return to “The Figurehead” and wonder at my brother’s research which helps him place a “middle adze” in the hands of a craftsman and a “fichu” around the neck of a lady, helping me to live in the book; far more honest.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

cop-out blog number three

Time’s still pressing so I’m having to cop out again, but this time I thought I might ask for help. First of all, it seems that my brother Ron reads these postings now and then so I thought it might be an idea to set up a clamour for him to guest blog again. If you decide to leave a comment, therefore, I’d be grateful if you’d join me in bullying him into making another contribution.

Next, Dragonlady (aka Diane Nelson) was indiscreet enough to suggest another Dinsdale the whale exercise might be appropriate. I immediately jumped at the chance and invited her to write it. She’s quite a busy person so we won’t expect anything from her until August but, as before, if you’d like to throw in some suggestions of things she MUST include in her offering, they’d be very welcome. She’s good, so don’t hold back. I’ll offer some of my own nearer the time.

Finally, I’ve once again ‘borrowed’ (i.e. plagiarised) from the list of similes created by real students in their GCSE essays. As I was starting to group them in categories, however, it struck me that they’re so inventive that they could easily have been produced by some well-known authors. So which literary greats might have scribbled the following in their exam answers? I’ll number them for ease of identification.

1. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

2. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

3. The thunder was ominous sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.

4. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

5. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free cashpoint.

6. The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium.

7. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a dustcart reversing.

8. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature British beef.

9. Her voice had that tense, grating quality, like a first-generation thermal paper fax machine that needed a band tightened.

Good luck.

Monday, 12 July 2010


I have to write something. It’s been ages. But again I ask myself the question – why am I doing this? Why the compulsion to write something when I’ve got nothing to say? Who cares? There are blogs which are informative, angry, satirical, issue-based, world-changing, committed, and the blogosphere is a welcome phenomenon when almost all the media are in the hands of predominantly right wing proprietors who dictate public opinion. (For several demonstrations of how bad our tabloids are, check out the excellent http://tabloid-watch.blogspot.com/.)

Mind you, there are some extremely unpleasant bloggers, too, across the whole political (and religious) spectrum, but so far it’s a place where freedom of speech is a reality rather than something to which lip service is paid by pressure groups hiding behind dubious interpretations of constitutional ‘truths’.

But what am I doing here? The short answer? Being self-indulgent. Peddling trivia in the hope of getting a laugh and maybe fooling enough of the people enough of the time to sell a few books. I think digressions such as the one which invited you to contribute to what became Dinsdale the whale are interesting and, for me, very enjoyable. They give me the chance to be even more self-indulgent and have a good time writing something without deadlines and with just the joy of writing as a stimulus. The fact that Diane then put it into print is a source of pleasure but, since I didn’t know that was going to happen, it wasn’t part of the ‘why am I writing this?’ equation.

I wonder whether, like other online things, it’s delusional. I genuinely believe that some of the contacts I’ve made through blogging and reading other people’s blogs are real rather than virtual. But it would be too easy to start believing that I really do have 144 ‘friends’ on Facebook or however many ‘followers’ I have on Twitter. Wait, though. That last thing makes sense. Since I hardly ever go there, what are those followers following? Nothingness, absence. Now that makes sense. All my followers there are waiting for Godot. They’re confirming that virtuality is a void.

In a way, it’s sort of comforting that this online experience that dominates so much of our lives is illusory. We’re all figments of each other’s imagination. It’s perhaps especially true for writers. We’re sitting at our keyboards anyway and thus have such a handy displacement activity which we can pretend is ‘networking’ or some other post-modern advantage and which is part of the fictional world we inhabit all the time.

But enough of this self-indulgence. This blog is supposed to be ‘about’ something and not just me preaching at you (until I reassume my guru persona and we have the grand hut opening). So let me offer just one highlight of the past week. It came as a question in an email from my son. A friend of his was driving along with his wife when they passed a man with two young boys wearing Spiderman outfits.
‘Oh,’ said the wife, ‘look at that man with his two Spidermans’.
The husband ‘corrected’ her. ‘Spidermen,’ he said.
‘There’s only one Spiderman,’ was her answer.
My son was asked for his take on this seeming paradox and, either because he sees me as an oracle on things linguistic or because he likes to throw me titbits to help keep my mind active in my dotage, he passed the query on to me. I, in turn, asked my wife and a French friend who was here. This led to a short debate involving other superheroes and the rules of grammar (and the discovery that Asterix wasn’t a suitable example because a terminal ‘x’ is already a legitimate plural in French). Then, the following day, at a birthday party, I asked other guests (two teachers of English as a foreign language, a professor of English and a lecturer in linguistics) for their professional opinions.

I know, I know – once again you’re thinking ‘what an exciting life he has’ and ‘what great parties he goes to’ – but the matter was resolved (to my satisfaction, at least) and I hope marital harmony was restored in the home of my son’s friend.

So there, a blog about the possibility of creating a plural form of a unique concept. The world is now a more informed place. But I have to stress that the questions with which I started were rhetorical. When I asked ‘Who cares?’ I certainly wasn’t soliciting a chorus of ‘We care, O Master’. On the other hand, it would be interesting to know two things:
• why you yourselves read or write blogs and
• your response to the Spidermans/Spidermen conundrum.

I leave the punchline to one of my heroes, Samuel Beckett. ‘Nothing is enough.’

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Life’s kaleidoscope

We leap from moment to moment and none of them lasts. But, even though it’s only as memories, the feelgood (or feelbad) factor of each of them blends with all the rest and gives us a sensation that does join them up and give the impression of continuity.

I know, I know – what the hell’s he talking about? Well, I was just reflecting on recent incidents and the accidental nature of everything and pretending to philosophise about them all. Instead, I’ll just tell you what they were.

The ongoing fact is that I’m still writing these two books, but occasionally I stop, take a rest from them and do something else. With the appearance of a strange round yellow thing in the sky on Tuesday, I decided I needed some oxygen, so I drove to a local hill and walked up it. It’s only about 1000 feet, probably less than that, but the views from the top are terrific, you’re all alone, and the only sounds are birds and rustlings in the heather it’s probably best not to think about. And it’s so different from sitting at a keyboard that it feels as if you’ve achieved something.

Then, on the way home, I stopped at the River Feuch and watched the salmon trying their incredible leaps up the falls. I don't think I've ever seen one actually make it to the top so it's a perfect symbol of the good old Sisyphus syndrome (even though they do obviously make it otherwise there wouldn't be any of them left).

Then … No, I’ll save the next ‘then’ for last.

Meanwhile, e-book and e-serial instalments of The Figurehead have been dropping into my inbox, the book’s on sale in the USA, and ought soon to be available here, too. And the garden’s lush and overgrown, which is how I like it. And I’ve started carving an owl for my sister. And the World Cup gave me an excuse to watch telly (even though it’s been the worst one I can remember).

Then there was a suggestion from Michael (of May Contain Nuts fame – and probably several other fames, few of which can be mentioned in mixed company), that it might be fun for him to interview me. I agreed and it turned out that it was. Over a few days, we exchanged sub-Wildean wit and some deep thoughts about crime-writing and you can now read the result on May Contain Nuts. It provoked some nice comments from Facebook friends but won’t make either of us rich.

So all of these things produced little (or large) reactions and gave an impression of variety, change, surprise – and I love unpredictability. But then, and this bit concerns several of you personally, came a surprise to add even more to the mix. Diane (DragonLady) Nelson is a prolific writer and editor. It was she who supplied the first response to my call for ingredients for what became Dinsdale the whale. But then, when both parts had been posted, she surprised me by asking if she could include it in her latest book – Shotgun Shorts. Needless to say, I jumped at the idea and so now those of you who contributed other elements of the story can see them in print (and on screens). I’ve acknowledged you all by name so future literary historians will one day be researching what they’ll probably call ‘The Dinsdale Collective’.

And it’s all these things, these little shifts of chance, alleyways, ring roads, that keep feeding different responses into life and give us an impression of duration, continuity. Which, when really all we are is poised on a ‘now’ which never lasts, is somehow reassuring.

I bet you wish I was still doing cop-out blogs.