Friday, 24 June 2011

Words, words, words – again

 I know you only come here to find solutions to all your writing problems or learn how to conduct yourself in polite society or maybe find out the latest on chaffinch migrations, but this time I’ll just be waffling on about some recent events – totally separate and yet linked by a specific theme.

I should first establish that I have that feeling of well-being you get when you open a package and find yourself holding a copy of your latest book. In this case, it’s not technically the latest because The Figurehead has been available for a year now, but this is the new Pfoxchase edition – you know, the one with the cover I’ve been raving about for a while – and it’s even more gorgeous in the flesh than it seems in the picture. I know ebooks are the future (and the present, too), but they’ll never be able to replicate the physical feeling of opening the pages, seeing your words there, feeling the weight of the object in your hand and, well, just looking at the actual evidence that you’ve written it.

Anyway, let’s get to the theme I mentioned. Because the books aren’t yet being printed in the UK, they came in a package from the USA and one scary aspect of them was that one of the labels was clearly marked, in big letters, LANGLEY, which is where the CIA holds its garden parties and other events. A second label showed that the books had first gone to Frankfurt and a third carried just one word – OVERWEIGHT. So there they were, three seemingly innocent scraps of paper which illustrated perfectly the power of words – isolated words, words not strung together by an individual to create an effect or convey any particular meaning – just labels. But the first two – Langley and Frankfurt – made me wonder why I was under surveillance not only in America but also in Germany, and the final one was clearly a gratuitous personal insult.

So that’s one of the events. The next concerns a conference I went to this week, down in Edinburgh. By the way, if you haven’t been there yet, try to get there some time. Glasgow has a dynamism and energy that’s terrific, and its architecture is impressive, but Edinburgh, with its castle rearing up across the gardens from Princes Street and its Georgian elegance is like a beautifully realised film set. (Which is a pretty strange simile to use since film is artificial and Edinburgh is emphatically real. Maybe that just shows how our exposure to media conditions our perceptions – to really believe in something we have to have seen it on TV or at the cinema.) Anyway, I was there to do a wee role-play as part of a presentation given by a friend of mine who’s a leading authority on rheumatology and he wanted someone to pretend to be a patient being interviewed by a nurse about taking part in clinical trials. And that was me.

But the reason I bother to mention it is that, on the first slide of his presentation, he identified the people taking part and there, at the bottom, were the words ‘Bill Kirton, Patient Actor’. And I wonder whether you’ve just had the reaction I did when I read that. It made me start speculating about all the other types of actor he could have had – impatient, stoical, gay, bloody furious – well, you can add plenty of your own adjectives. And it’s yet another example of the magical, independent power of words in isolation, and the other power – that which they give to those who can use them effectively. The slide was simply identifying me as an actor playing a patient, and yet the simple juxtaposition of words created a totally different phenomenon; it implied a specific personality type, suggested a whole story behind why I was there, how I’d reacted to the request to play the role. It might even have been a comment on my entire acting career. In fact, it could easily have set the audience speculating about why it was necessary to stress that I was patient rather than grumpy or insecure. And my friend might have been doling out his wisdom and expertise to a room full of people who were more interested in solving the mystery of this enigmatically patient actor.

And one final word-related story. On the train to and from Edinburgh I finished reading My Demon by Lisa Hinsley, which is a very readable, scary book. I decided to review it for Booksquawk and today scribbled some notes about it and, since one of its themes is the connection between lust and violence (even death), a word came into my head that I hadn’t used or even remembered since my days as a university lecturer. I didn’t use it much then, admittedly, but it cropped up now and again in articles on the Romantics or writers conveying decadence. It’s a small, undistinguished word but it carries all sorts of echoes, implications, concepts and contradictions, and it illustrates the chasms that can open under just a single word. It’s algolagnia. Try it.

Words, eh?

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Monday, 20 June 2011

A taste of Sparrow

Just to underline the difference I implied in my previous posting between myself and my sisters, while they’ve been doing good works for charity and generally spreading joy amongst their fellows, I’ve been sitting on my own in my study indulging myself and having a good time. I’ve been making what I first thought would be a trailer for the still simmering Sparrow but which turned into a short reading of the opening paragraphs with some fancy pictures signifying nothing.

As I think I’ve said before, making little videos like this is a wonderful displacement activity. It’s as absorbing as writing. And it’s a way of keeping the Sparrow simmering. Actually, come to think of it, this book seems to be spawning culinary metaphors. Maybe calling the video ‘A Taste of Sparrow’ will attract new followers, people who barbecue very small birds such as larks, wrens, ortolans and, of course, sparrows, strip the tiny morsels of flesh from their razor-sharp, throat-threatening bones and wash them down with a can or two of Irn Bru. (NOTE. In fact, the bones of ortolans aren’t like that at all. French bon-viveurs prefer them to be force-fed, marinated for ages in Armagnac then roasted, whereupon they eat them, bones and all. There you are, a gratuitous piece of knowledge you can use in your next conversation with a gastronomic aesthete.)

But these and other birdivores (a word which doesn’t exist, but should), are all welcome, as are any images, comments or symbols linking The Sparrow and gastronomy. I might be able to squeeze another blog out of them.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Three sisters, but not by Chekhov

If you’re a relatively regular visitor here, you’ll be aware of a shadowy presence that wafts in and out occasionally to offer the odd guest blog and enigmatic comment. I refer, of course, to my brother, Ron (whose next contribution is long overdue). My other brother, Bob, has better things to do with his time, and reserves his bons mots and wit for face to face get-togethers. But I think we’re all in agreement about at least one thing – that we have three sisters whose dynamism and energy make us seem comatose.

The reason I mention this ‘fact’, which can be of no interest to anyone other than the six of us, is that I’m just back from a long weekend during which I benefitted from some of their energy and commitment. I won’t embarrass them by saying anything of their personal circumstances except to say that they’ve experienced (and continue to experience) various trials and tribulations connected with health and with loss, some of them particularly devastating. And yet they are the most positive, life-affirming people I know. If you were to spend time with them, you’d think they’d never had a sad or painful moment. The saying is that you can choose your friends but not your family – well, if I had been given the choice, I’d never have come up with something so right as the wonderful balance of my 5 siblings.

The main point of the weekend was a banquet. No, not a white tie and tails affair in a baronial hall with lukewarm institutional food and thick layers of pretension, but a superb Italian meal for 20 people, all prepared and cooked in my sister’s 12’ x 8’ kitchen and served on 2 tables for 10 in her dining-room/sitting room. My 3 sisters and a niece did the cooking and serving, duly kitted out as maids. The aperitifs, hors d’oeuvres, 4 courses, coffee and digestifs were all served efficiently without any waiting around, the wine flowed copiously, and everything was delicious. The evening’s main sound track was laughter and the overall profit was £680, which went to a cancer charity.

They hold these banquets maybe twice a year, interspersed with quiz nights, the occasional barbecue and the even more occasional ball. Admittedly, they love doing it and have great fun with all the preparations, but the mere thought of trying to organise and carry out such an event makes me want to lie down in a quiet room and dab my fevered brow with a silk handkerchief.

I’d love to draw a general conclusion about all this, some insight that would solve the various crises in the Middle East or lighten the burden of the diseased and threatened in Asia, Africa and South America, but that would be glib and artificial and have nothing to do with the uncomplicated joie de vivre that my sisters exude. So I just wanted to boast about them and make it known officially that I not only love and admire them but am in awe of the things they do.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The chaffinch is back

Last year, on May 19th in fact, I blogged about a chaffinch which flew up and banged into the top of the window pane beside my desk. If you want to check it, it's here. At the time, I took a picture of my window from the viewpoint of his take-off area but could only see the blurred reflection of a tree (blurred because it’s reflected from the two layers of double-glazing). I did the same today and you can see the result, which doesn’t seem to me to contain anything that might look particularly inviting to a chaffinch. Last year, my speculations ran as follows: ‘Maybe the soul of a critic has transmigrated into his body and he hates writers. Maybe he’s practising some arcane act for the next Simon Cowell show – ‘Nature’s Got Talent’ or something. Maybe  he’s a chaffinch philosopher and he’s just proving that ultimate satisfaction is unattainable.’

But here he is, back again, within a few weeks of the date of his last visit, so I need to adjust my thinking. It must be an annual pilgrimage. Now I’m not enough of an ornithologist to know whether birds have religions so, for all I know, my window might be the avian equivalent of Jerusalem, Mecca or Salt Lake City. On the other hand, it’s just one chaffinch. It may be a different one from last year but it’s still just one – and it’s not much of a religion if it’s only got one follower.

Much more sensible is to assume it’s a migration, but I checked that and they mostly migrate in Autumn, so what’s going on with this particular  Fringilla coelebs? (See, I take it seriously enough to consult Wikipedia.) It’s obviously an unconventional chaffinch. Not only does it migrate in May/June, when all its fellows are singing, building nests and fornicating, it also migrates not to Finland or other parts of Scandinavia but to a small spot at the top of my study window. It’s clearly a rebel chaffinch and, if I had the time, it would be interesting to study all its habits. I imagine it building a nest out of lego, walking past a bird table laden with seeds in search of a cheese sandwich, shaking its ironic head at its fellows whistling their heads off in the branches as it strums a ukulele and does an impersonation of Bob Dylan,. There are so many possibilities. I could even write up my observations and submit a paper to some learned biological journal. Indications of solipsistic deviance in some aspects of migratory behavioural patterns in male Fringilla Coelebs in north east Scotland, then recycle the article to a tabloid under the heading CHAFFINCH IN FRENZIED ATTACK ON WRITER.

Then there’s his name. If we assume Fringilla to be his given name, he’d make the perfect Romantic heroine. I realise that would mean he’d be cross-dressing as well, but he’s a rebel, remember, so it would come naturally to him. “Fringilla looked at her reflection in the window pane, shuddered with delight at its intoxicating beauty and hurled herself into his arms”. But wait – why didn’t I think of this before? The name. It’s a sign. A natural magnet for the paparazzi – drop the ‘o’ and maybe the ‘s’ and you have Fringilla Celeb. And he’s chosen MY window. What a day.