Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Pulse in Poetry

Ladies and Gentlemen, the man who needs no introduction, my gifted, laid-back little brother, with a contribution illustrated by his son Joe.

Just for a change from our early morning competition over who has had the worst night’s sleep, or from repeating the clichéd, “Well, this won’t buy the baby a new bonnet,” and because it was later than usual, I tried some Yeats as I woke yesterday: “I shall arise and go now……”

My wife beat me to the bathroom and – to prove I was not the only literate partner – took up and almost sang the first stanza:

            “I shall arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
            And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
            Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee;
            And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

And then, moments later, through the cleanest of teeth, her tone had changed from singing sylph to whip-cracking critic:

“Nine bean rows? Nine rows of beans? What does he want with nine rows of beans? It’s not like he’s got a freezer or anything. He’ll never get through nine bean rows. We have a job eating our two rows before we get fed up and start making piccalilli –and there’s no evidence he was keen on that.”

And, unwittingly, alongside a brief search for a rhyme for piccalilli, I found myself not only agreeing that – unless he was drying and storing the beans – three rows would be plenty, but also resolving to do a little more research to discover if the beans needed to be salted, like pork, to last the winter, although, being – presumably – a freshwater lake, he might have trouble keeping his salt pot filled.

“And he’s only got honey to accompany them: ‘….a hive for the honey bee…’ Mind you, one hive is a bit more realistic, but that one ‘honey bee’ isn’t going to make life very sweet.”

I chiefly blame (and thank) Monty Python for these journeys into the absurd. Before you know it, you’re miles away from the content, not to mention the writer’s intention. You can end up feeling like the spoiler in the seminar, who won’t let the group get past “April is the cruellest month” by telling you how it can be quite nasty in early June if the jet stream doesn’t behave itself. Thank goodness the rest of Innisfree doesn’t invite any more culinary speculation.

The same, over-rational spoiling is at work in a short story by Salley Vickers, where a character is posing the old riddle which goes,

            “As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives,
            Seven wives had seven cats, seven cats had seven kits,
            Kits, cats, men, wives, how many were going to St Ives?”

Her companion isn’t satisfied to be ‘tricked’ by the correct answer (one; it’s only the writer who is going to St Ives) and says,

“Why shouldn’t he meet them on the way? He might be overtaking the guy if he had all those blessed creatures to drag along with him.”

But what has this to do with the heady life and times of award-winning writer and top brother Bill Kirton?

Well, it feels like it links to previous posts about the balance between the writer’s intention and the freedom and right of the reader to make what they will of the text, even if that construct is as remote and prosaic as the examples above. However, those reader-rights ought to be supplemented by the need to, at least, suspend disbelief and allow some poetic licence, if they are to have access to the deeper structures in the text.

What this entry needs now is a meatier selection of examples where the literal has blocked off the literature. That’s where you guys come in.

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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

My brother is my keeper

I should have known better than to post the previous offering, in which I was boasting about winning awards. Hubris is always punished and yesterday came retribution via that man you all (unaccountably) seem to like - my brother Ron. And what better way to convey the experience than by simply pasting the email I sent to him when it happened. The relevant part of my note to him went like this:

This morning, to put off getting started on anything, I looked at an analytical thing that counts blog visits, pageloads, and other stuff which I don’t understand. As a result of checking to see whether I’m wasting my time writing the bloody thing, I found details of each blog’s popularity and as I scanned down the figures, I was quite pleased to see that some of my efforts attracted well over a hundred (although the vast majority were in double figures – and mostly low ones at that). Then – oh frabjous day etc. – the wonderful figure of 586 leapt off the page – but it was bugger-all to do with me. It was your second contribution. Fair enough, I thought, so I looked for your first one and, for the months of January/February 2010, I found the following sequence:

3 - 5 - 0 - 2 - 3 - 1 - 1 - 2428 - 3 - 1 - 1

That’s not a joke or a misprint. I’m therefore the blogging equivalent of the singer of Pinball Wizard and I owe a duty to ‘my’ readers to cajole you into raising my profile once more, you lazy, popular bastard.

To his credit, he didn’t gloat but he did recognise the need to restore some of my credibility again simply by associating me vicariously with himself and he promised that he’d give it some thought. Actually, it’s just occurred to me that those elevated numbers were probably achieved by him visiting the blog to look at his own contribution again and again and again. But I can’t afford to take chances and so, rather than sign off as ‘Award-winning author Bill Kirton’, I’m happy to acknowledge that the above was written by ‘The brother of Ron Kirton’.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

What identity crisis?

Cliché alert – ‘No two writers are the same’. OK, good to get that out of my system, but there’s more because I also think that ‘No ONE writer is the same’. Here’s what I mean.

We all know the publishing business has changed significantly and increasingly quickly over the past five years or so. When I started writing novels as opposed to plays, you polished your MS, printed out a copy (not cheap if it ran to 300-odd pages) and sent it out to agents and/or publishers. Postage wasn’t cheap either, (you also had to cover the costs for its return if they didn’t like it). Then, through the (sometimes) months you waited for them to reply, you got on with the next novel. Meantime, you also had your day job and you were a husband, wife, lover, significant other, hermit, father, mother, son, daughter, outcast, or whatever other roles your social situation imposed on you. See what I mean? There were (and are) several people inhabiting your body. But, back then, the writer bit was just that – you wrote, sent your stuff away, waited patiently but eagerly for a reply, got rejected and did it all again.

Today, though, even that writing bit has fragmented. Being a writer doesn’t just involve the one role. There’s still the writing (the best bit), but there’s also:
  • the PR person, desperately trying to create and project a cuddly profile;
  • the fish out of water, trying to learn and apply marketing techniques;
  • the social networker, scrolling through tweets and Facebook comments with all the other writers;
  • the blogger, trying to sell books;
  • the prostitute, willing to do just about anything to be published or shoved up the sales lists;
  • the reviewer;
  • and, mostly, the unrecognised genius, whose blockbuster novel will change the course of humanity but lies misunderstood in the depths of a computer.
I exaggerate, of course, but only on the basis of fairly common experiences shared by many.

But why am I saying stuff you all know anyway? Because what I’m really doing (with very little subtlety) is boast. I’ve already sent out a few tweets and FB comments saying how wonderful I am, and this is another because yet another ‘self’ has been added to my list. I am now … (discreet but still quite loud fanfare) … an ‘award-winning author’. My publisher, Diane Nelson of Pfoxmoor Publishing, submitted two of my books to the 2011 Forward National Literature Awards. The Sparrow Conundrum was the winner in the ‘Humor’ category, and The Darkness came second in the ‘Mystery’ category. OK, trumpet blown, so what?

First, the news turned me into a six year old on Christmas Eve. And yet, objectively, I’m not comfortable with the idea of ‘competitive literature’. Even though I know there are terrible novels out there as well as terrific ones, I applaud anyone who’s had the stamina and the commitment to actually write one and see it through to the end. But if I deny that we’re all in competition, where do sales figures fit in? In the end, being able to add that little ‘award-winning’ tag to me and two of my books theoretically gives me a wee marketing edge. I say ‘theoretically’ because I don’t yet know whether that’ll be the case and, anyway, it’ll be up to me (the sloth) to make it happen.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it opens up another tricky area when it comes to the various ‘selves’ I was speaking of. My two awards were for very different books. The Sparrow Conundrum is a spoof, The Darkness is a stark revenge/vigilante story with a pretty chilling resolution. So what does that make me? A funny man or a scary man? And what about the other stuff, the police procedurals, the historical, the non-fiction and, most of all, Stanley’s Boswell? Multiplying your ‘selves’ can be counter-productive.

Readers, naturally enough, like to know what to expect when they buy a book. If they’ve enjoyed your gore-saturated slasher mystery, they’ll probably feel cheated if your follow-up is a light-hearted romantic romp through the tulips. In a way, then, they impose an identity on you – and they have every right to do so. But what happens if it’s not you but the characters in the follow-up who decide that they’ve gone off the idea of being serial killers and instead want to fall in love and skip through a field outside Amsterdam?

As I keep saying, ‘Hell is other people’ but it’s also readers and our characters.

On the other hand, to end on another cliché, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

(The above was written by award-winning author Bill Kirton.)

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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Amazon is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Those nice people at Amazon emailed me this morning to say there was a book they were sure would be of great interest to me. And they were right. The only problem was that I’d not only read it, I’d written it. The book in question was the fourth in the series I’d written for Pearson, Brilliant Workplace Skills, and, to try to penetrate and benefit from their marketing strategy, I asked myself why they decided that that was the book for me.

First, why Workplace Skills rather than the others? I’m well past retirement age and, in fact, I took early retirement to concentrate on my writing, so I only share my office with me. Which means I have little need for the book’s insights into topics such as promotion prospects and how to enhance them, interpersonal relationships, office politics and protocols, and (God forbid) romance in the workplace. So they couldn’t have thought the content would be of interest.

Which leaves style. Maybe they thought ‘Ah, he’s a writer. He’ll appreciate the finely rounded phrases here, the prose rhythms and cadences, the immaculate structuring of arguments, the inspired organisation of the material and the impeccable choice of words’. But no, style and content can’t be separated so arbitrarily. And anyway, all of you, the sophisticated literates who read these blogs, will already have curled a scornful lip at the heavy-handed irony of those stylistic claims and judged that this paragraph is merely a filler, a spurious pretence that this posting has a theme, a direction, a purpose.

So what else? Maybe they’ve looked at my novels and decided that the fiction writer in me needs to be mentored by his non-fiction counterpart. After all, I’m clearly rubbish at writing crime novels. My detective makes jokes, doesn’t have a drink or drug problem, isn’t particularly scruffy and lives with a funny, attractive woman to whom he’s happily married. He cares about people, too, and he’s more interested in truth than in justice, so he’s obviously not cut out to be between the covers of a modern crime novel. And even when I try history, the crime bit gets overtaken or at least muddied up by romance. As for The Sparrow Conundrum, what self-respecting auteur would admit to committing such rubbish to paper (or screen)?

Or maybe there’s something else, something unthinkable really. Maybe, in their desire to dominate the world and take the place of oxygen, Amazon has lost the plot. Could it be that they … I hesitate to articulate it, but … do they perhaps not know much about books? Surely they don’t think Brilliant Workplace Skills is a … a product, something electronic maybe, an executive toy, an object you put on your desk and … well, play with until it’s time to go home. No, that can’t be it. Amazon is the pinnacle of evolution, the ne plus ultra of refinement and civilisation. Amazon is the reason the Big Bang happened. No, the fault must lie in me (and, no doubt, many other writers). Amazon can’t have made a mistake.

(The car, by the way, is a 1956 Volvo Amazon. I got the picture from Phil Seed’s Virtual Car Museum

P.S. OMG, as some people say, as if to demonstrate the truth of Amazon's omnipotence, as I was posting this, news came through that The Sparrow Conundrum, whose quality I so cheaply dismissed above, had been awarded first place for 'Humor' in the 2011 Forward National Literature Awards. I don't know what it means, but I'm bloody impressed.

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Monday, 7 November 2011

Random musing, Wimbledon, stuff like that

Just some random thoughts provoked by recent events. No, not Greece or the Eurozone crisis, or the fact that there are 7 billion of us now (although the concept of ‘us’ is laughable in the context of the generally accepted 99-1 wealth split). And it’s not the absurd fact that Berlusconi was ever allowed to hold any sort of political office (or any other office than that of a brothel concierge). And so on, and so on. No, we all have our convictions and hopes in these matters of global concern; they don’t always coincide and no amount of preaching or arguing changes things. Maybe if I had the occasional chat with Jesus, he’d make my putts drop, but I don’t, so He helps my playing partners to beat me. Serves me right.

So these random thoughts are on things of no significance to anyone. They serve the Beckettian purpose of helping me pass the time. ‘We always find something to give us the impression we exist’ says Estragon in Godot. So the more entertaining and stress-free that ‘something’ is, the better.

Such as the recent academic research that found that people born in August are:
a)      less likely to get to the ‘better’ universities in the UK, and
b)      less comfortable in social situations.
The argument is that they’re the youngest in their particular academic year and therefore 12 months behind their classmates. What it adds up to is that you’re wasting your time reading this and, if you’re a ‘follower’, you shouldn’t be. Because I was born in August, which means that I’m congenitally thick, I don’t know words such as ‘congenitally’, and I’m hopeless when it comes to engaging others in social interactions. (On the other hand, I’m still 15 days more intelligent and sociable than my daughter, who was born even later in August than I was. Except in a different year.) (You see? That last remark was either a post-modern witticism on the nature of time and progeniture, or clear proof of my disjunction from coherent thought.) (It also gave me the chance to indulge my obvious predilection for parentheses.) (But I’ll stop that now.)

The only conclusion to be drawn from this which might have some positive value is that, if any of you are planning to have a baby, wait until January to make sure it’s born in September. I’m sure you’ll be able to find other things to do between now and then.

Random thought 2 was provoked by a FaceBook posting by my other daughter (who was born in April and is therefore much cleverer than I am – in fact, so clever that she managed to be born just 12 hours before the end of the tax year, which at the time earned me an income tax rebate). Anyway, she wrote that, the moment she hears a politician say ‘Let’s be clear about this’, she stops listening. Whereupon daughter 1 added that she has the same reaction when they begin sentences with ‘Look’. My own contribution was that, when they say ‘The fact is’ or, even worse ‘The fact of the matter is’, it’s a clear signal that what follows will be fiction. So, even given the huge intellectual distances separating us, it seems that we’re bound by quite close family traits

Speaking of family, here’s another aside which is an unashamed boast. One of my granddaughters has been chosen to have free tennis tuition at the All England Club (i.e. Wimbledon) every weekend. She's the red dot in the picture. She’s 5 years old so I anticipate a seat in the Royal Box in, say, 2026 to see her lift the trophy. I shall, of course, encourage her parents to be ruthless in forcing her to practise, give up school, pleasures, TV, boyfriends. She’ll be made to eat healthy food which tastes like cardboard, rise at 5 am to get her conditioning right and run several miles before breakfast and after dinner each day. And I’m looking forward with great eagerness to the day when she’ll be sponsored by manufacturers of tennis shoes who pay workers in the Far East 25 cents a month so that they have the necessary millions to spare on stars. Quite right, too.

Enough randomness. I was going to go on about those incomprehensible souls who think ‘Second Place is just the first loser’ (Dale Earnhart) or commentators like the British guy describing a race in the world rowing championships who, when a British crew won, went all orgasmic, screaming ‘They don’t do bronze, they don’t do silver, they only do gold’. I’m not sure what he said when he had to call home British crews who did ‘do’ silver or bronze. Still, as Beckett (again) said ‘You're on Earth. There's no cure for that’.

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