Friday, 27 August 2010

What the dog meant

First I was riding my bike along narrow roads which were miles out in the country, then I was walking along familiar streets in a town I thought might be Dundee, but I wasn’t certain of it. I came to a spiral staircase and started climbing it. Near the top I found I couldn’t go any further, then I realised it was because an old man was sitting on one of the steps. He was dirty and dressed in bulky old clothes. He started to stand, muttering apologies and saying it wasn’t open yet, but I saw that I was nearly at the top and the staircase just led to a wall, so I told him not to get up and I started back down the steps.

That was last night’s dream (well, one of them) and the reason I describe it is because it’s like the dog – it calls out for meaning. What do the various elements represent? What do they mean? And what did the dog mean?

The short (and correct) answer is nothing. I did climb the hill, see the stump, speculate about the granite blocks, but there was no dog. I borrowed it from Flaubert. I used to give lectures and tutorials on him and still think he’s a great writer. Dogs figured largely in his life but also in his books. An early experience which marked him was seeing a woman called Mme Schlesinger at Trouville – she was 26, he was 14 and he fell in love with her. He used to take her dog for walks on the beach and, when he was out of sight, cuddle and kiss it where he knew her lips had been. (Don’t ask.)

Madame Bovary had a little sort of greyhound and she’d sit with it as it ran around chasing butterflies, biting at flowers. Flaubert said its actions were like her own thoughts, aimless, restless, scattered. But the dog I borrowed was a very sinister one from an early novel, the first Sentimental Education. That’s one based on his love for Mme Schlesinger. Jules, the hero, has just had a sort of revelation of the harmony and beauty of the world. The sun’s setting, the air’s pure, and everything seems fresh to him. Then the dog comes rushing up to him.

It’s scabby, horrible, much worse than mine, but it runs eagerly round him and tries to lick him. He throws a stone at it but it doesn’t run away. Then, as it gets dark, he starts feeling scared of it – it’s both repulsive and attractive. He thinks it may be one he gave a girl way back but then maybe it isn’t. The dog seems to want him to follow it. It barks, howls and snarls, especially when they get to a bridge over the river. And Jules remembers he’d once thought of committing suicide there. In the end, the dog seems to be looking at him with human eyes and it’s so scary and loud that he kicks it hard. It carries on howling, running near him but at last he gets home and locks the door. He then has a terrible night and, when he opens the door in morning, there it is, lying just outside.

All this takes about 8 pages to describe and critics have written articles about what it means. The only reason I borrowed the dog was to remind myself and you of how readers supply so much of the reality of what we write. Your comments were great, offering different versions of what the dog ‘meant’, and they were all legitimate. So what we do is provide readers with clues and they make their own stories out of them; they decide what the characters look like and whether they’d want to spend time with them; they decide what is and isn’t significant and what fits into the patterns we provide. So thanks for continuing to make sense of these ramblings. Normal service may or may not be resumed later.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Dinsdale the Whale - the movie

This is a short commercial break.

Diane's collection of pieces by herself and others in which she included the Dinsdale blogs is now available. It's called Shotgun Shorts. I did this little reading for the website and there's a much more professionally produced trailer there.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

What does the dog mean?

Blog 100, then. So how did I decide what to put in it? (Warning, this is a Dinsdale-type blog, i.e. only some of it is true). I walked again up that hill which is just a 20 minute drive away but takes me up and out of streets and into heather and vistas. And as soon as you start climbing away from cars and people, you can let yourself think that mystical stuff is possible. In fact, in an absurd world, it’s not only possible, it’s a more acceptable response to life than the logic, solutions and explanations that seek to make sense of everything.

As usual, there were several pauses on the way up because it’s steep in places and, with only trees around, you’re just open to whatever jumps into your head. This time, one of those whatevers was a bloke called Simon de Montfort. We spent a year in France a while back, in the South West, the Languedoc region, and that’s where Simon indulged his fancies, one of which struck me particularly forcibly. He was leader of crusaders who were laying siege to Béziers, where a sect called the Cathars were holed up with some Catholic sympathisers. (This was back in the 13th century.) One of the charming things he did to try to persuade them to give up was to gouge out the eyes of a hundred prisoners, cut off their lips and noses and send them back into the town. A special little refinement was that he let the one at the front keep one of his eyes so that he could see to lead them back. How people can treat their fellow humans in such ways is beyond my imagining – and the fact that similar things are still happening in the ‘civilised’ as well as the less civilised world makes you wonder whether evolution has somehow stopped.

Why I remembered that on a sunny Scottish hill I have no idea. So I carried on walking, thanking whoever had set the granite blocks in place at some points along the track to make it easier to climb. A little aside then made me start wondering whether I could use these carefully arranged blocks, and even the path itself, as a metaphor. It’s an obvious one but maybe I could distort it, undermine its obviousness. Maybe it wouldn’t be a symbol of our taming of nature or our determination to go somewhere, but a scar which would heal when we’ve gone. Maybe it would disappear behind me as I walked on, just as my past was. More than all that, though, I was wondering why I hadn’t remembered to bring any chocolate with me.

Then came the stump – dead, whitened wood, beside the path. A tree that had stepped aside for a rest and just snapped off and rotted away, except for the twisted bole and useless roots. It was like Sartre’s tree root in La Nausée, grotesque, challenging, excrescent. It was also a bloody good excuse to have another pause and pretend I was thinking deep thoughts rather than taking deep breaths.

And it was just past that stump that the dog appeared. No barking or snuffling, no crackling twigs to announce it. I turned a bend and there it was, sitting on the path. The most mongrel of mongrels. Scruffy, yellowish, bits of fur missing, and a face that would never make it onto a puppy calendar. I put my hand out to it but it backed away. Not fearful, just private somehow. And it followed me to the top. And I know that some of you will lose any vestiges of respect you may have had for me but I started to get fed up with it. I’d come here to be on my own and this cur was interfering with that wish. So I shooed it away.

For a while, it stood some way off, then a final rush and a shout from me and it ran off on its stubby little legs. The trouble is that it had set me thinking of the dog in Byron’s poem Darkness. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. Nasty, scary stuff - the black Romanticism, not troubadours, minstrels and princesses - the sort of stuff I didn't want to be reminded of on a sunny day on a beautiful hill. And it was all the dog's fault.

There were more things, more idle musings, more speculations, but this is getting too long so I’ll just tell you one more of them. It came later that evening, just before I went to bed. I went out to lock the garage door and there was the dog, sitting on the pavement across the road. Remember, the hill where I saw him is maybe 16 miles from where I live. But there he was, squat in the darkness, looking at me.

In fact, I’ve borrowed the dog. But what does it mean?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Back to fiction and Percy Briggle

The drafts of the two books are finished (apart from a couple of sentences about mathematics which I wrote but still don’t understand and which I’ll need to check with a friendly mathematician). That means that I can get back to writing some fiction, which in turn means devising a framework which will hold together my collection of sci-fi/fantasy stories to re-submit to an interested publisher. The stories are stand-alone, mostly intended to be funny but also exploiting the strange modern world where real and virtual co-exist, sometimes in ways which make them almost interchangeable. I don’t play computer or online games but I’ve read enough about them to know that they draw you in and offer experiences often more intense than those of the humdrum everyday. If a timid, unfulfilled minor official – let’s call him Percy Briggle (that's him in the picture)– goes home, microwaves his ready meal, logs on and becomes Zarg, Lord of Destruction in the Province of Malefaction, anything’s possible.

My own stories stem from a period when I joined Second Life ™ to add to some research I’d done for a story on BDSM. It’s a fascinating, addictive place (for a while at least) which offers opportunities for anonymity, experiment, all sorts of role-playing and a weird form of release. It can also result in genuine contacts with real people which transcend the game’s limits and, in the end, remind you of its artificiality. Anyway, that’s the world of these stories but, since they all play on the incongruities and absurdities of that real-virtual interface, I need to create a unifying central narrative that will allow me to digress into the stories while still persuading the reader that they form a coherent whole. It’ll be an interesting process – whether it’ll work or not I’ve no idea but I know I’ll lose myself in it pretty quickly.

Beyond that, waiting, lurking, lies the sequel to The Figurehead. I know I’ve written about it before and I’ve done plenty of research on the themes I want to look at in it, but when I think about starting it, I realise that I’ve no idea how to. It’s a new feeling which I don’t remember having with any of the previous books because I can’t remember how I started them. And yet there they are, so I must have. I know what the opening scene will be as well as the three or four which follow it in which I need to set up the people involved and the places where it’ll all happen. But until those people are born, I’ve no idea who they are or what they’ll do (other than those who survive from The Figurehead). It’s an old refrain of mine but I really do need the characters to lead me through the narrative. So, even though the prospect of writing 80,000 words or so seems daunting, I’m confident that, once I’ve given them a few sentences, put them with one another and they’ve started to breathe and react, they’ll know where they want to go and I won't want to do anything else until they get there.

One thing which surprises me is that, whereas with The Figurehead the central (crime-solving) character was the figurehead carver, I suspect that, in the follow-up, he’ll have to give at least equal footing to Helen Anderson. In the various rewrites of the first book, she changed from being a relatively naïve (although feisty) young woman to a powerful, self-contained person frustrated by and refusing to accept the restrictions society imposed on her. So she, for one, won’t let me get away with anything. Fiction doesn’t pay the bills but it’s great fun writing it.

PS. Despite my recent absence, I still haven’t forgotten the challenge to Diane to write a guest blog on the same basis as the Dinsdale postings, so we need more random words, themes, dares, whatever to test her to the limit. We have a good start with Anneke’s desire to hear about ‘a man in small close fitting swimming pants carrying a pair of skis’ (really, Anneke!) so please add a few more degrees of difficulty.

And PPS, according to the stats, this is the 99th blog, so the next one ought to be milestone-ish somehow. Any suggestions as to what it might be about?

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The guest knits

Ah, the kindness of strangers. Or, in this case, of my brother. Yes, he's back. I'm on holiday and unlikely to scribble anything much for a week or more, so what follows is a Godsend or, more accurately, a Ronsend. Thanks bro. Please keep them coming so that I can sidle off into the wings and bask in your reflected glory.

Donnie’s mention of knitting, alongside an earlier thought from Bill, about the dangers of public promises, sent me back to my days as a year leader at middle school. It was the pupils’ first assembly at the big school and their first glimpse of me as a potential role model. I decided the theme would be ‘Challenge’ and, to strengthen my message, I showed them that I was as good as my word – that I wasn’t going to ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.

What I should have done was learn to play a new tune on my guitar or take up juggling with three balls (each of which were within my grasp and could be demonstrated at a subsequent gathering). But I decided it had to be a genuine challenge, something way outside my skill set. So I declared that I would knit a pair of socks.

Those readers who knit can look the other way while I outline the process. Socks are knitted on four small needles with points at both ends, so there’s nothing to stop the wool falling off. The knitter creates a circular ‘weave’ rather than the flag-like rectangle in conventional knitting. And it’s bloody difficult. All of which fitted the challenge motif admirably.

After six weeks I had managed a short green tube that would have made a bad mini-skirt for a Barbie Doll. Unfortunately, the children were impressed. I had secretly comforted myself with the thought that they would forget my boast, get bored and want to move on. But I had reasoned without their persistence (and I hadn’t even done the ‘Persistence’ assembly, due in week ten). I had also reasoned without my sadistic female colleagues, who regularly asked me to bring in my work and show it to the pupils.

What finally did for me -and my status as mentor- was the most technically difficult bit. I won’t attempt to describe the vortex of psychological torment I fell through as I failed to TURN THE HEEL of that first sock. Had they been regular needles, I would surely have fallen on them in the manner of a disgraced Samurai. As it was, I didn’t finish them – or it. My wife did, and I wore them to an assembly, confessing nobly that I’d had ‘some help’. But the children were not fooled; their memories persisted for a generation. As their younger siblings joined the school, they would playfully ask, “Finished your socks yet, sir?”

And the photograph you see is of a miniature one knitted for me by a mum – probably with one hand, during an episode of her favourite soap – and presented to me at the end of the year: possibly the world’s first ironic sock.