Saturday, 31 December 2011
Friday, 30 December 2011
Literally translated the New Guinea pidgin expression throwim way leg means 'to throw away your leg'. Slightly less literally, it means to thrust out your leg and take the first step of what could be a long march (ie: to go on a journey!). I lived in the Pacific area for nearly ten years and three were spent in Papua New Guinea. At first glance the language seems naïve and downright silly – I can't help but chuckle when I hear it – but for all its apparent simplicity, New Guinea pidgin can be very subtle.
The Blue Suitcase is available on Kindle in both the UK and US and in paperback in branches of Blackwell's and Waterstone's throughout the UK and in many Independent bookshops in Edinburgh.
BTW: The Blue Suitcase is a recommended staff Christmas Read at Waterstone's West End branch in Edinburgh.
(My debut crime/thriller, set in the Republic of Kiribati, is due out in the late summer of 2012 – the working title of which is Murder on Tarawa, but that will most likely change!)
Thursday, 29 December 2011
So - I need to make some New Year Resolutions:
Wednesday, 28 December 2011
Tuesday, 27 December 2011
I was sent to
That got me thinking about the place for printed books now that we are all concentrating so hard on understanding the dynamic of the electronic versions. This imaginative idea of the book as a prestigious gift would not have worked so well if presented in e-book form. It would have lacked the cultural resonance of the print version. The recipient of the gift would not have been able to pick it up, turn it over in his hands and pass it round the guests who had assembled for the presentation beneath the hotel’s palm trees.
E-books are undoubtedly the way forward when it comes to getting writers’ work out there, showcasing it, distributing it more economically and ecologically, but when it comes to creating a product with special meaning, and for limited editions that are to be displayed as well as read, print will no doubt live on for a long time. Books that might be read by millions on screens, can still be produced in special editions for hundreds or thousands of collectors and enthusiasts.
The hotel in
Monday, 26 December 2011
As I write this, just before Christmas, I'm feeling rather sorry for myself. I have a sore throat and a cough, which get much worse if I lie flat. I also have a painful back, which complains unless I spend every alternate hour or so lying flat on it! Sitting at a desk, even on my new super-dooper-bad-back-chair, is impossible for more than five minutes at a stretch. I have shopping, baking and cleaning to do, guests arriving for Christmas, a father up in Yorkshire who needs lots of help from me, his only daughter, and - urrgghhh, I won't go on...
(Btw, I know, really, that I have many things to be thankful for and am much, much better off than some. But if you remind me of that, some nasty primitive reflex might be triggered and I might try to kick you, so please beware...)
A kind Twitter friend just recommended that I try lying on my tummy in order to type on my laptop, placed on a stool at the end of my bed. It works, at least for a short time, and I'm very grateful for her suggestion. At least, if I can get on with some work, I don't feel such a useless lump.
And now, having got those moans out of the way, I'm going to tell you about one of my plans for 2012. A couple of years ago I wrote a short novel, of about 42000 words, about an elderly woman called Marguerite, who has Alzheimer's. In spite of her condition, she retains her sense of humour (note to self: take note!) and develops a deep friendship with her great-granddaughter, who is going through tough times at home and school.
I thoroughly enjoyed becoming Marguerite for a while. I did some research, of course, but have no idea, really, whether her character will convince my readership. I've done my best and now I can only hope. What I can do is put the book out there and make sure some readers notice it and give it a go.
From what I gather, no publisher will look at a novel of this length; not unless you are Ian McEwan or someone like him. So, having had some useful criticism from fellow writers and readers, I'm hoping to publish Mondays with Marguerite as an eBook, sometime in 2012. I've got a fair bit to learn first, both about the mechanics of the process and how to publicise it, but I'm very happy to be hitching a lift alongside the many experienced authors on this blog who have already ventured into the world of ePublishing, some with considerable success.
I hope, too, to continue to be 'traditionally' published in 2012. I'm in talks with an editor about a new series for 7-9s, which I can't wait to begin. Charity's Child, first published by the indie publisher Circaidy Gregory Press in 2008, is to be reissued as an eBook with the same publisher in March 2012, this time marketed at age 14+. And my science fiction novel for adults, which I'm currently redrafting on my tummy, will be under submission, I hope, by the middle of next year.
So I may be hobbling around and coughing like crazy (as so many of us currently are), but my eyes are firmly set on 2012, hoping it will be a better year for readers, writers, independent booksellers, libraries - indeed for everyone who truly cares about books.
Sunday, 25 December 2011
It's Christmas Day, so I don't suppose many people are going to read this - apart from the odd one taking a breather from the festivities. But for those who do, here's a short and rather sweet Christmas story, inspired by my own family's Christmas memories....
THE CHRISTMAS TREES
Painted round it was a dark-blue silhouette of a chimney sweep carrying a long ladder on his shoulder, and another silhouette of an old-fashioned lamp-post. White blobs of snow fell around the sweep, and there was a suggestion of snow-covered ground at his feet.
'This was one of the globes I had when I was a little girl,' Jennifer said, holding the delicate bauble above the heads of her own two daughters, Anna and Catherine. Anna reached up for it.
'No, let Catherine hold it, and you can look at it. Be careful, Cath, it's very fragile. I'm amazed it's still in one piece.'
This story comes from my collection NIGHTCOMERS, which is available for download from Amazon here.
Saturday, 24 December 2011
When I was seventeen I was given this poem by my English teacher to read aloud at the Christmas Carol Service. I learned it by heart and every Christmas Eve without fail it comes back to me. I didn't know, until recently, when and where it was first published, or that 'in these years' referred to the years of the Great War. I hadn't fully grasped its context. But I instinctively felt its poignancy, its air of regret and I understood the folk traditions from which it came and which meant so much to Hardy. I loved its language too: the comfort of words like 'combe' which were a part of my West Country heritage. I understood the desire for something magical, something to believe in.
Now it seems as poignant to me as it did then at seventeen, perhaps even more so. After all we are still at war and the spiritual messages of Christmas are easily forgotten.
So I offer you this beautiful poem as a Christmas gift and I hope you come to remember and enjoy it as much as I do and I hope you have a wonderful - happy and peaceful - Christmas wherever you are and whatever you do.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
|Thomas Hardy's Study|
Friday, 23 December 2011
Here's a true story. A couple of years ago, it had been arranged for me to do a talk and a signing session at a bookshop situated in the middle of a very large and very busy shopping mall (I can tell this story now 'cos the shop - and indeed the mall - are no longer there). A pretty big deal for me - I'd never done a bookshop signing before. Some classes from nearby schools were going to be bussed in, and the local press would be there.
The day of the event dawned after a night in which I was sleepless with excitement. To cut a very long story short, I arrived at the bookshop with seconds to spare (the train was late, and my station-to-shop map was rubbish), and dripping wet (the rain had started belting down seconds after I left home). Holy moley, I thought, what a journey, at least I got here in one piece, and I am at least on time. Phew.
I went into the bookshop. Hello, I'm Simon Cheshire. The staff gave me a funny look. Who? Umm... I'm Simon Cheshire? The author?... Err, the signing, today?... Nope, no author expected. No schoolkids, no local press. What was your name again, mate?
I was a little miffed. It turned out that the shopping mall's managers, who'd arranged everything, had forgotten to tell the shop I was coming. And also to tell the schools. And also the press. Hmm, I thought to myself, standing there dripping quietly, I believe it may possibly be time for me to go and have a word with the managers. It took me about half an hour to find the mall's office, tucked away behind a pizza stand and up six floors in a tiny lift. By the time I got to the Reception Desk, I wasn't in the best of moods.
"Hello, I'm Simon Cheshire," I said, to the very, very pretty Receptionist. She was so extraordinarily pretty, in fact, that my bad temper instantly went away, and all I could do was be vastly polite to her. "Is Mrs X in?" I said. [Mrs X - not her real name, you understand - was the woman who'd 'organised' my visit]
"I'll just find out for you," said the very, very pretty Receptionist, flashing an absolutely devastating smile at me. My heart skipped a beat.
She picked up the phone. Tap tap tap. Ring ring. While it was ringing, she whispered to me "Sorry, what was the name again?"
Her call was answered. I don't know if the Receptionist had the phone's sound turned right up, or if my hearing was oddly acute that day, but I could hear every word that was said at the other end. And the Receptionist obviously didn't realise this. She asked for Mrs X. She was told Mrs X was on holiday for two weeks.
"I'm terribly sorry," said the very, very pretty Receptionist to me. "She not in her office at the moment."
"Ah," I said. "Umm, is there someone else I could talk to? There's been a bit of a mix-up somewhere along the line, and I was hoping I could maybe sort something out for another day?"
"Of course. One moment." She smiled again. My heart melted.
Phone. Tap tap tap. "Hello? Stacey? I've got a Simon Chester in Reception. He wanted to speak to Mrs X."
On the other end: "Oh God. Why? Is this a moan?"
The Receptionist, still unaware I could hear Stacey, said "Yes, I think so."
Stacey huffed and puffed and tutted a bit. "Ummm...." Long pause. "Is he fit?"
Without a moment's hesitation, without so much as a glance up at me: "No way, man," snorted the Receptionist. My heart shattered. To be brutally honest, nobody has ever mistaken me for Brad Pitt, but I couldn't help feeling a little wounded. I want to go home now, I thought.
"I'm sorry, Mr Chessman, her assistant isn't available either. Would you like to make an appointment for tomorrow?"
"Err, no, that's fine, thank you. I'll leave it. No problem. Thanks for your help."
"Not at all. Have a good day." Beautiful, beautiful smile.
I walked away, rain still dripping off my trousers. I think I may have whimpered slightly on the train home. So you see, dear readers, the moral of this story is: the life of a writer isn't all glamour and excitement.
(By the way, I've got a new Selection Box ebook featuring sample chapters from some of my books for 8-12 year-olds, which is available free from my website. A-hem, you don't expect me to go a whole month without a blantant plug, do you?)
Thursday, 22 December 2011
Missing NCX file
Judging by many of the ebooks I read, not all publishers and indie authors realise what this is or that their book would be better if it had one.
NCX stands for Navigational Control for XML application and the NCX file creates the little marks called 'nav points' that you sometimes see on the progress bar at the bottom of the screen. If they are there, you can skip backwards and forwards along the bar between nav points using the 5 way controller. Without them, readers can only navigate through the book using the page forward and back keys, the search facility or, if the publisher has provided one, with the interactive table of contents.
In most books each nav point is the start of a new chapter, but you can make the marks appear anywhere you like. For example, at subdivisions within a chapter or at diagrams that you know the user might often want to skip back to. The nav points will often exactly duplicate your table of contents but they're much easier to use and anything you do to make reading your book easier must be a good thing.
Luckily, real Kindles don't have the NCX button so ordinary users will never see the error message. So can you ignore the problem? Well, lots of Kindle e books don't have an NCX file so, if you do, you'd be in good company. With a novel, readers may not even realise what they’re missing. But a non-fiction book or an anthology definitely gains from having nav points.
The bad news is that, to include an NCX file, you need to abandon Amazon's Mobi Pocket Creator and start using their command line utility,' kindlegen.exe' instead. Kindlegen just takes all the components (including the NCX file) that constitute an ebook and binds them together. Unfortunately, this means that you have to know what these components are and how to create them individually.
You can probably guess that you'll need at least the text of the book in HTML format, any pictures that are included, the stuff about the author/publisher, a table of contents and of course the NCX file.
You list all these files and other information in a master file called an OPF (Open Packaging Format) and then tell Kindlegen to get to work. That’s not as scary as it sounds – the command can be as simple as 'kindlegen mybook.opf'.
Before you get that far, you'll need to find out exactly what to do by looking on the internet. computerhope.com tells you how to start up a command line session, and easy-as-pie.com is an excellent resource to lead you through the construction of the necessary files. The Kindle publishing download includes a Sample folder (actually the files that make up the Kindle User Guide) that you can use as a model for your own files.
My latest ebook, Perfectly Pony, is in the Amazon Kindle store,
complete with an NCX file.
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
Tuesday, 20 December 2011
Like many writers with a traditional publishing background, I networked one to one - meetings, parties and email discussions. My writer friends had websites, but I didn’t because I had no books out under my name. Even though my agent was out crusading with my first novel as me (My Memories of a Future Life) we never discussed ‘platform’.
One day a web-savvy friend in the games industry was telling me about blogging, and set me up with a Wordpress ID. I wrote a few posts. It was fun; my own writers’ observatory - looking at real life with a storyteller’s eye.
Writerly friends enjoyed my posts. Non-writerlies were spared a lot of abstruse conversations. When I didn’t post for two weeks, the teenage son of some friends - who I thought would have cooler pastimes - told me I was overdue for a post. Since that day, I have taken my schedule seriously.
I went googling and found a writers’ blogoverse. Then a Twitterverse and a Facebookverse. Each portal I fell through, I discovered new constellations of likeminded souls. I wrote a writing book, Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, which I intended for my agent to sell, but it thrived as an electric indie because of the friends I was making through my blog.
But blogging didn’t feel like a publicity duty; it felt like play - and something I had always done. When I was a teenager, I had shoals of penfriends. Homework finished, my greatest pleasure was pouring ideas onto paper. If you made friends with me you were in for a lot of reading. You still are.
On the advice of those who know, I put up a second blog of static pages in case people searched for Roz Morris rather than Nail Your Novel. People do subscribe there, but nothing ever happens so they probably think I haven’t anything to say.
I started a third blog to release My Memories of a Future Life. That was also intended to be static pages. Then, to help out a friend, I posted a piece about using music as a creative spark for writing and called it The Undercover Soundtrack. It fitted well on that blog as my novel’s narrator is a musician. I realised I’d love to read a series like this - a literary Desert Island Discs where writers talk about the music that helped them create their characters, stories and settings.
Now the Future Life blog is no longer about promoting that novel, it’s a creative magazine of its own. Every week I host a new Undercover Soundtrack guest, among them other Authors Electric - Dan Holloway and Catherine Czerkawska (coming in 2012) and distinguished AE alumnus Nicola Morgan.
I love having my blogs. I love the feedback of discovering another comment out of the far-spread ether, or a question from a reader that provokes me to examine a wrinkle of the writer’s craft. Blogging turned out to be a useful move in the grand scheme of serendipity, but really it’s what I always liked doing - where at heart I’m still a teenager awhirl with curiosity, writing to friends.
Monday, 19 December 2011
I read this article in the Daily Mail not long ago about the skills that are being lost forever because of modern technology, everyday things such as writing a letter, printing photos and sending postcard as well as skills like reading a map.
We know about the early Saxons and life in the middle ages from written records such as the writings of Bebe or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.
Letters, records and photographs tell us about the World Wars and other historical events. Even in our own families, letters, diaries and photographs help us learn about our ancestors and are invaluable when we're tracing our family tree. But I have to admit that it's a long time since I wrote a letter, filled in a diary or printed out family photographs to put in an album. My photographs are on line, many on Facebook to share with other family members, I email instead of write letters.
However, computers are constantly upgraded and old software doesn't always work on them. I have many manuscript files that have corrupted on discs or are in a format I can no longer read. So when my descendants want to trace their family history what will they find out about me and my family? If only electrical evidence is left will they be able to access it? On an even wider scale, many records are now on line whilst paper records are increasingly destroyed or lost. Will historians of the future be able to access them? If all our memories are electrical will they at some point be lost? What memories are we leaving for future generations?
Sunday, 18 December 2011
My late father came to Yorkshire from Poland, at the end of the war, with one of the Polish regiments attached to the British army. He came via Italy and Monte Cassino, so he was lucky to survive. In Yorkshire, still a young man, he worked in a textile mill for a while - it was compulsory for 'refugee aliens' - met and married my English-Irish mother, Kathleen, and went to night school, cycling home through smoky Leeds on wintry nights while I was a baby.
By the time he retired, he was a distinguished scientist, working as a visiting expert for UNIDO, with a double doctorate: a DSc as well as a PhD in biochemistry. He died in 1995 and I still miss him, but I think I miss him and my mother most at Christmas, especially on Christmas Eve, because we always managed to have a Polish celebration meal, reserving the turkey and plum pudding for Christmas Day.
|My dad, my grandfather and grandmother, in Galicia, Eastern Poland|
|Little Lord Fauntleroy!|
Before he died - because I knew that I would want to write about my impossibly romantic Polish family history one day - I spent many hours with him, questioning him about the past. He made wonderful notebooks and drawings for me, full of detail. Later, I used some of this material in two radio plays and drafted out a novel. I was planning a trilogy, but I was distracted by theatre and did very little with it. Then, a handful of years ago, I did a lot more research and rewrote it completely as a longer novel called The Amber Heart.
My last agent tried to sell it but although he declared that it was a 'wonderful' story there was very little interest from publishers who - all too predictably - thought it was beautifully written, but couldn't see how to market it. Which is why I'll be publishing it to Kindle, around Easter 2012, all being well - although in slightly modified form. At some point, a less than sympathetic editor got his paws on it and at his suggestion, I took several chapters and incidents out of it. He - young, intellectual, over-confident - wanted me to skip over much of the story and 'get to the end.' Later, I realised that if I were to think about my target readers, he would be the very last person on earth I would consider.
|My handsome grandfather- Max de Winter lives.|
|Inspiration from a picture by a great great great uncle.|
Almost without realising it, he was heading very slowly north west, going gradually in the direction of Maryanna’s old home at Lisko. He was lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve with a family of Polish smallholders, who had been dismayed to discover that sickness in the family had left them with an odd number of guests at their table for their festive supper. Since this meant that one of their number would die, for sure, during the ensuing year, the head of the household had rushed into the lane outside his house, looking for somebody, anybody, to make up the numbers.
Piotro had been lurking outside, sniffing hungrily at the savoury smells coming from the house. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He washed as best he could in the butt of icy water at the back of the house and the farmer’s wife found him a well-worn but clean linen shirt in honour of the occasion. His eyes were dazzled by the unaccustomed light and the heat of the room bemused him, making his head swim. He swayed and clutched at the back of a wooden settle to steady himself and tried to mind his manners.
In each corner of the room stood sheaves of rye, wheat, barley and oats, to ensure a plentiful harvest for the coming year. There was straw on the floor and a thin layer of hay on the table-top, covered with white linen. The company sat down to eat and the farmer broke the blessed wafer, spread with honey, and handed it to each guest in turn, including Piotro in this ritual with a smile.
‘Welcome, stranger! Welcome in God’s name, and eat!’
The supper was traditionally meatless but very plentiful – the family had been saving for this all year - and Piotro ate his fill of beetroot soup, pike in jelly, fried carp, smoked eels and pierogi, dumplings shaped like little ears filled with potato, onions and cabbage. There was dense, creamy cheese cake, spicy honey cake, luscious poppy seed roll and the traditional dish of kutia. At the less decorous end of the meal, the young boys of the family vied with each other in tossing spoonfuls of the grain and poppy seed mixture up to the ceiling which, when it stuck there, signified luck and a good harvest for the following year. The family were scrupulously polite to Piotro, attending to his needs but worrying him with few questions. Afterwards he was allowed to sleep beside the kitchen fire and in the morning he went on his way, laden with a good supply of food.
You can read a little more about all this and a few other things on my new website at www.wordarts.co.uk , beautifully designed (I think!) by a company called Paligap, in Ayr.
|Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski|
Friday, 16 December 2011
It was that book through which I met many of the people I still work with most closely and started to get invited to blog across the web on all topics digital. Most of all, it made me realise how exciting it could be exploring for different ways to write.
The most exciting form I've discovered has been flash fiction which may not necessarily a digital form of writing (there's even a flash fiction category in the Bridport now) but both lends itself to appearing on blogs and has taken off in popularity thanks to online initiatives like #fridayflash (every Friday hundreds of writers post flash fiction on their blogs, then put a link on twitter as well as the #flashfriday hashtag. By searching that hashtag people find, read, and comment on, hundreds of stories a week. It's a fabulous community and has already spawned several superb anthologies).
Flash fiction could be describe in all kinds of ways, from word count (under 1000, under 500, under 400, various others) to structure, but it's an incredibly versatile form (and new) that eludes such labels in the main. Suffice to say it's not a short story (I personally treat flash's relation to shorts as I do novellas to novels - the capturing and layering of a single strand rather than the weaving of several, but I know that's an idiosyncratic way to look at both flash and novellas), and is most definitely not a practice ground.
The closest I've come to a description was in a piece I wrote for James Everington's excellent series "In Defence of Short Stories" which, typically for someone obtuse like me, took the form of a piece of flash rather than an argument. I've put it at the end of this post, along with a new piece.
Anyway, next year sees the very first National Flash Fiction Day, held on May 16th. All kinds of things will be happening all over the country and online, and the event has already attracted some fabulous supporters like Tania Hershman. To support the day, I'm running a Flash Slam in Oxford. Do click the link to sign up! Basically this will take the same format as a poetry slam - lots of people get to read for no more than 4 minutes each, before audience members randomly/affectionately assign marks, and everyone has chaotic fun and learns to appreciate just how fabulous flash fiction is. And if you're not sure if you'd like to read (Oxford audiences really are warm and lovely) or would just like to be part of a warm and lovely audience, do come along to listen! And if you change your mind about reading once things get going you can always sign up to read on the spot. We even have a headline act and superstar panelist, the utterly brilliant Tania Hershman who'll be offering friendly comments on allr eaders as well as reading her own award-winning flashes
So, here are my pieces. They're sort of similar in subject - most of what I write is, in some way or other, connected with the art world. The first, Flash, is in a conversational/anecdotal style I often use. The second, After She Stopped, is more like my longer fiction and will almost certainly remind you of Murakami (albeit many times paler).
I've been reading James’ defences of short stories for some time now, and I’ve sat at my desk thinking about putting something together, wondering what I could say. It should be easy. I write short stories. Lots of them. And not just short stories but flash fiction too.
That’s it, I thought, before I asked James if I could put something together. Flash fiction. After all, I haven’t seen too many people defend it. It’s still looked upon as a bit of a novelty, a parvenu, not at all the place where an author would have the space to attribute three whole adjectival clauses to a single noun.
The problem is I’ve never really been an apologist. Do. That’s my motto. Don’t think it, live it. And live it again, and keep on living. Just like Katelan said that night when we sat around in button back chairs telling the audience about Lilith, and embracing life so close you choke on it, and her friend Holly, who died in her early twenties but lived more than you or I ever will.
It was mid morning. Goodness knows what time o’clock in New York but I called her anyway.
Hey you, she said with all the energy I remembered, and I didn’t feel so bad.
So I’m doing this piece about flash fiction.
Yeah, about how cool it is. No, not just that. A defence of it.
A defence of it? she said and I could hear the frown lines. What’s to defend?
Exactly, I said, it seems so obvious.
So obvious you can’t think how to put it, she said, and I just laughed, and there we were laughing down the phone together at how ridiculous it was.
So how come you’re up? I asked.
She told me she’d been on a shoot and I asked her what they’d been shooting and she said she’d spent all day riding the IRT sharing homemade cupcakes with strangers while a friend filmed the thing on his phone and I said that sounded pretty cool and she said yeah it was cool, and then she spent an hour telling me about this guy who was going to propose to his partner only he wasn’t sure and he and Katelan talked it over for so many stops as they ate and her friend filmed and they ate some more and talked some more that he missed his stop and his partner called him and he picked up his phone in the middle of a mouthful and Katelan heard her say screw you, loser and the guy laughed and ate more cupcakes and felt so free he rode another ten stops with her while her friend filmed.
I asked her what she was going to do with the shoot and she said her friend was just finishing the film as we spoke and was going to upload it the moment he was done. I asked her if she could send me a link and she said not to worry I was first on the guy’s list when it was ready so I said thanks and she said you still don’t know what to write, do you?
No, I said, and she laughed and I asked her why and she said I’d always been slow on the uptake but not to worry, when I got the point I was always the right one to follow it through. I shrugged and asked her what the piece was called so I could tell people about it. I heard another voice, not hers, a man’s voice and it said, I’m not the one who lived. I’m not the one who lived, I repeated and Katelan’s voice and the man’s voice were laughing at the end of the line and then they weren’t. They weren’t anything. I held the phone to my ear waiting for her to say yeah, or awesome, or goodbye or something but she didn’t, and the next noise was the ping of an incoming e-mail and I held the phone close and mouthed thank you down the line.
Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed to say.
After She Stopped
“You could look at it forever, couldn’t you?”
It was my first visit to the Hilbert Gallery. I’m not sure why I was there. Maybe it was raining outside. Maybe there a meeting I needed to miss.
Looking at the screen, I thought the words were part of the exhibition.
I stood there staring at images that seemed to change every ten seconds or so, wondering how much of my life would be too much to spend with a piece of art.
It was minutes before I noticed the girl standing next to me. She had a Mary Quant bob and she was wearing a long woollen coat although it was summer. I wondered how long she’d been there.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a kiss.” She didn’t look at me. It was like a cord ran between her eye and the screen.
“I can’t see any lips.” Between the clothes and the stillness, she had this kind of Beatnik authority about her, and I felt like a klutz as soon as I said it.
“Yeah, weird, isn’t it?” she said.
We stood in silence after that. I kept watching the screen, trying to figure whether the film was on a loop, whether anyone was going to kiss at any point. I’d forgotten whatever it was I’d come in to avoid doing.
I wondered if there was some kind of etiquette for who leaves first in situations like this.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said, like she was reading my thoughts off an autocue on the screen.
“I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.”
“You’re coming here.”
It was like that for months. I have no recollection of the hours I wasn’t at the gallery. I’d turn up at the Hilbert. “You could look at it forever, couldn’t you?” she’d say, and we’d stand in front of the screen like we were playing a game of dare.
The day she stopped coming, I had this cramping, seasick feeling. I felt her absence next to me like it was thumping my kidneys.
For weeks I went back every day. I stared harder and harder at the screen, as though she might be in there. She never was.
One day I was standing in front of the screen and the emptiness next to me was missing. A woman stood next to me. She had a sharp suit and her blonde hair was tangled like she was on her way somewhere.
I said, “You could look at it forever, couldn’t you?”
Thursday, 15 December 2011
What's the idea, then? Usually the answer is something on the lines of 'encouraging the children to write.' I did go to a school in Sheffield once where an extremely chippy (on the shouldery) young teacher told me that it was an easy way of making a living, so the kids should be set on the path as soon as possible. When I said mildly that I didn't think it was that easy, especially in the 'making a living' sense, he got really indignant. I was getting thirty odd quid for an afternoon's burbling (it was a long time ago), while he had to actually work for a living - and teaching was bloody hard work, too.
Fairly obviously, he wanted to be a writer himself, and had so far found it impossible for anyone to recognise his genius. He wasn't even mollified when I agreed with him about the hardness of a teacher's lot, and really got quite offensive. He told me finally that if I was as 'socialist' as my books appeared to suggest, I ought to give my fee to the school funds. I tried to humour him. My first book got an advance of £200, I said, and I bought myself a bar billiards table with the money - except that it cost me £350. Wrong answer. He dreamed of having a bar billiards table, he said, but on his wage, etc, etc. I just hope to God he didn't become a careers adviser. He might actually have told the children it was a route they ought to follow.
More recently, I've been asked quite frequently to help older people with their writing, rather than going into schools and talking about my own. I did an Arvon week once, which is a deep-end experience in more ways than one, I found. One of the things that most fascinates me about this blogspot is the robusticity (there can't be such a word, but it sounds better than robustness) of spirit and of niceness that everybody shows. People talk about helping others to become writers as if this is not only a duty and a service, which I probably agree with, but also a good thing. For whom, a good thing? For why? Let's break it down a bit.
In classes I have been running recently, the participants were all extremely high on natural talent. It was honestly a pleasure and a privilege to listen to their work, to talk it through with them, to offer ways I thought they might like to think about to move it on. I had been dubious about taking the gig, and did so only on a trial basis, but it worked. Except, except. One day there was a new arrival, young, dyslexic, troubled, directed to the group by a well meaning person who thought, like my Sheffield teacher maybe, that...that what? I and all my regulars were completely thrown. Had he turned up for his second session, disruption would have been complete. Fortunately, he was extremely bright. He joined a music group instead. That was his good thing. Why writing, though? Why had that been suggested? To make a living? To enhance his self-esteem? Because it helps to pass the time?
Back to Arvon. There were perhaps a dozen of us. This time they had paid, and I guess quite a lot of money. For the majority, excellent. A week in a lovely place, like-minded people, feedback, fun. For a couple, it was torture. For the tutors, that was torture also. One woman asked me, halfway into it, if I would tell her, honestly, if she was wasting her time. Her eyes were deep and frighteningly vulnerable. Was she challenging me to tell the truth? Did she know the truth? Did I know the truth? I talked it over with other Arvon tutors later. It worried me for years. I took comfort from one of my favourite Brecht tropes: 'Truth is a black cat in a windowless room at midnight.' It was not that great a comfort.
Let's break it down a bit more. Here we all are, taking people's money to teach them how to write. Or to tell them what we know about the subject, or what we think we know. And what's the end result? A billiard table they can't afford to buy, a life as a writer who has to scratch a few quid helping other people to not be able to afford to buy a billiard table. Or - for the favoured few - an even worse fate. To be Jeffrey Archer, maybe, or to write The Da Vinci Code, to end up ridiculously rich. The Brecht quote ends: 'And justice a blind bat.'
But now I'm being silly. There have been times in my writing life when the money's come rolling in, and others when I've fought the mice for the cheese off the trap (not literally, you understand) - and to me it was all exactly equal. Because the fact is I write because I have to, not because I want to, I write because it's embedded in my genes (or something), I can't just give it up. I told the Arvon lady that she was doing fine, to keep on going, that Scott Fitzgerald papered his bedroom wall with rejection slips before he sold a word, and he would have gone on writing even if the knock-backs hadn't stopped. My mum always used to ask me if I was ever going to give up writing and get a proper job, but I don't think she meant it, much. She certainly knew the answer, anyway. If you're going to write you write, period.
Which means money is irrelevant, as is fame and acceptance - and probably 'being taught.' So when people ask me now if I can help them, I think of Bertolt Brecht, and tell them that I probably can't, but I'm prepared to have a look and chat about it. At the very least it seems to make them feel better about their affliction.
So I do it out of altruism.
And for money, naturally. Merry Christmas!
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86960 (Albeson) (Both under a quid)
Wednesday, 14 December 2011
1944. Yes, a very fraught year indeed. People kept telling me we were going to win the war. I hardly listened to them; I was nine, I'd never doubted it and thought that anyone who didn't agree with me must be a bit stupid. I'd learnt to read - admittedly after a bit of a struggle - two years before but apart from stories of two characters (whether human or animal I really can't remember) called Ponder and Plod and 'that silly little rabbit/Who had a naughty habit/of eating and eating all day/ Little bits of greenery /he found upon the scenery' until he had a very unpleasant experience indeed, I can't really remember any hugely emblematic figure in my literary development. Well, Rose Fyleman and Alison Uttley and copies of Enid Blyton's 'Sunny Stories' which belonged to my cousins and which I would tear up with contempt if I ever got the chance, do all hang somewhere in my memory and I just about remember an absolutely terrifying Blyton-invented monster called the Snoogle which had once scared the wits out of me and nearly stopped me reading altogether. Potter, Pooh, Wind in the Willows: they passed me by completely. I only discovered them when I had children of my own.
But Christmas 1944 came and I woke up at 3 in the morning to see what was in my pillow-case at the end of the bed (not much usually) and I found a book. It was a strange-looking thing. It had green binding and a dust jacket with lots of little black and white drawings with blotches of yellow between them and on it was written: