Archive | October, 2013

NoNaRhiNo

31 Oct

Heaven help us, it’s nearly that time of year again. The deluge, the great outpouring… So I’m getting my words in early. I won’t reach the 50,000 mark. My story won’t even make 500 words. But here it is, nonetheless.

Nona the Rhino – known also as NoNaRhiNo, so that illiterates didn’t have to feel bad about placing capital letters in the middle of words – was on the rampage again. She was a very large beast and she was very flatulent. She’d been grazing on cabbages and Brussels sprouts. And she was charging around now, blowing out hot air. Perrfrumpppp. So severe was the wind blowing from Nona’s backside that it threatened to last for an entire month. Prraaaarrrp.

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NoNaRhiNo

And all of that hot air was contributing to global warming. Prruurruuup. People told her that if she’d only stop eating up all those leaves then the flatulence might stop too. But she wouldn’t listen. She kept on blundering around and trumpeting, as rhinos do, without stopping to think for a moment. Nona was immune to criticism. She had a hide, well, like a rhinoceros’s. Fraaarrrpp.

And if you see NoNaRhiNos charging around everywhere that you look this Movember, remember Ionesco’s stark warning. Take care – before you know it, you might have become a NoNaRhiNo too. Phrrrurrmmp.

And the moral of the tale? Forget NaNoWriMo – grow a moustache this Movember instead. 

All text and image © PSR 2013

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Work-in-Progress: an Update

23 Oct

And so I’m off to the writing den. The boot of the car will be loaded up with paint (for decorating purposes), logs (so that I don’t freeze to death), and books and CDs (so that I don’t die of boredom). I’ll also be taking my laptop, with Work-in-Progress No. 1 stashed safely away inside it.

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The writing den awaits me

I’ve been working on WIP No. 1 for the last year now and I still haven’t shown the text to anyone. All that I’ve shared are the three short extracts on this blog (herehere and here) and a further one in Jamboree Bag, the sampler of my work now in the hands of a few readers. Previously, during the days of the Ipswich Writing Group, I would have shared a larger number of extracts with my fellow writers. As it is, 12 months and 60,000 words down the line, I continue writing in a vacuum. Like its predecessor, WIP No. 1 has a pretty complex structure (I don’t like doing things the easy way…) so it’s nowhere near finished. And it’s always possible, of course, that it’s a heap of garbage. That’s the risk we take as writers. It’s not until a project is on the home straight that you can really say whether it’s going to work or not. Time will tell.

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How WIP No. 1 might look in print

A week without the Internet or work, or people, come to that… hopefully, I should get a few thousand more words written. In the meantime, here’s a further extract.

I had begun to wonder about the flies.  That was when I first suspected that I might be losing my grip.

The People’s Semi-autonomous Republic had possessed a genius for surveillance, even before the advent of digital technology. Microprocessors, nanotechnology, CCTV, hidden microphones… What mightn’t the Republic’s successor be able to achieve with these modern miracles? One thought led to another. I noticed that whenever I was sitting at a table in a bar or café in that city, I would find myself surrounded by flies. I can honestly say that they’d never bothered me much before. Now I’d developed a pathological hatred of those little black monsters. The mere sound of their senseless buzzing would jar my nerve endings. I’d lash out at them until either they were driven off or destroyed. They seemed to be everywhere. And I started to question their reality. Mightn’t they be tiny drones, then, designed to follow me, to gather information with their microscopic cameras and recording devices? And if their operators didn’t like what they found, who was to say that their proboscises mightn’t turn out to be armed with scale model ballistics?  I became expert at trapping them. When an insect landed on my table, I would hold my hand above it, lowering it slowly so as to overwhelm its compound eye.  And then I would strike. I never discovered anything that looked artificial, though, just the splattered innards of the creatures. They contained no miniaturised circuitry or mechanisms. But that didn’t mean to say that my suspicions were unfounded. I may merely have crushed the wrong ones.

All text and images © PSR 2013

Books Partly Read

18 Oct

One feature of my bookshelves are those books partly read, their bookmarks sticking out, anywhere between page one and one hundred and something-or-other. Unfinished business, then. There’s a variety of reasons why this may have happened. Perhaps I misplaced the book for a while and started reading something else. Maybe I’ve been busy with some other activity. And from time to time, a book just doesn’t engage me and so I put it back on the shelf.

On occasion, I actually get around to reading these books. Such has been the case with two novels that I’ve read this year (I’d previously reached pages 110 and 125 of them, respectively). I wrote in an earlier post about returning to The Glass Bead Game after twenty-five years. A mere five years have passed since I put down Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. It was just that my life was going through one of its periodic phases of turmoil and the structure of Danielewski’s book was proving a bit much for my shot-away attention span. But I’ve picked it up again and am right back there with it.

Mystery Door

I don’t make a habit of denigrating other writers’ work in print. In this case, though, I can’t see that it matters, since the established writers upon whose work I’m about to comment won’t ever come here and wouldn’t care what I have to say even if they did (I followed another such writer whose book I had read the other day on Twitter, complimenting him on his work – needless to say, I got no reply). I’d felt obliged to try the novels of David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy because they’d been recommended to me and because they’re English writers whose work has been much trumpeted for its experimental nature. Cloud Atlas made its way back to the shelves after a few pages (it wasn’t the first time that it’d done so either). It’s taken me months to reach page 31 of C – great title, though – and it finds itself in danger of returning to the library before long. It’s aristocratic Everyman is so far removed from my experience – and that of most readers, I would imagine – that it fails to engage and could only be the work of a writer from an elite background (like my mute Twitter friend). And experimental? Hmm… Now House of Leaves, that’s another matter. It’s a bold effort far more deserving of the title, in my view. The novel would appear to be in much ruder health over on the other side of the water. 

Assuming you haven’t stopped reading this post part way through, I’ll make a confession. There are some books that I know really ought to appeal to me – Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, to name but two – the beginnings of which I’ve never got past. The former was translated by William Weaver whose work with Italo Calvino’s writing I admire. And I’ve read a number of novels by the latter. Nor do I give up easily. I am, after all, the man who has read and enjoyed supposedly unreadable tomes such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Samuel Beckett’s novels. And yet I’ve never got beyond the gatehouses of those two books. Sometimes, perhaps, you just have to face facts – you and a book aren’t going to get on and you need to cut your losses.

Here’s a list of part-finished reads with page numbers from a survey of my shelves (naturally, the list is incomplete).

Strindberg, Olof Lagerkrantz, p162

Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe, p15

Peter Gabriel, Spencer Bright, p56

A Painter of Our Time, John Berger, p113

Crow Country, Mark Cocker, p86

Beechcombings, Richard Mabey, p16

Antwerp, Roberto Bolaño, p13

Does this ever happen to anyone else? Do you keep on reading books even when you’re not enjoying them? Or do you give them away and de-clutter your bookshelves?

And then, of course, there are the books partly written, but that’s the subject of another post entirely…

All text and image © PSR 2013

Reading at Arts Festivals, Part Two

16 Oct

Last week, I read at the Writers’ Café as part of Ip-Lit, Ipswich’s new literary festival. I was much less nervous than last time – I still have no idea where those nerves came from – and my reading was only hampered by the woeful sound system employed. It was still a waste of time, though. Only humorous short stories or gimmicky poems appeared to make any impact. And that’s really not my metier. My friend J Huw Evans, both a novelist and a very entertaining performance poet, provided the evening’s highlight and gained the best response. To quote and adapt another poet, ‘I am not John Cooper Clarke, nor was meant to be…’ I probably should have read something gimmick-laden along the following lines:

Short Story

A shout

‘Don’t shoot!’

I shan’t

Thou shalt

A door slammed shut

A shot

A blood-soaked shirt

Breath short

Shit…

Blank sheet

But I didn’t. And don’t think I will. I’d rather spend my time writing or reading. Farewell, then, for the moment at least, literary festivals…

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J Huw Evans reads in the distance…

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PSR reads in the blurry foreground…

Text and images © PSR 2013

The Nature of Inspiration

11 Oct

Divine inspiration, the Eureka Moment… While I often find the work of other writers inspiring, moments of heightened creativity aren’t something I’ve experienced too often. I suspect that the same is true of most writers. And yet ‘uninspired’ is a pejorative term for writing that lacks originality or spark, implying that any work of worth must have been composed in this manner. My writing is mostly a result of thinking hard about words and ideas, drawing on all of the experience that I’ve built up over decades.

Some artists claim to have written in trance-like states or to have ‘received’ works that appeared fully formed in their dreams. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, supposedly composed his epic poem, Kubla Khan in a narcotic-induced dream (the details of which, he like, forgot, man). It’s that idea of something else taking over, as though a visitor from the spirit world were directing our creative processes through automatic writing. I confess here and now that I have no belief in ‘higher forces’ and have been an atheist since I was a small child (there’s nothing like having a strict creed imposed upon you at an early age to destroy your faith gene). There must be unconscious processes at work, then, I’m guessing.

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The inspirational Northumbrian coast. I once spent a week there trying and failing to put the finishing touches to a novel.

I’ve experienced inspiration most clearly, on several occasions, in musical composition. In a matter of minutes, a song appears, apparently out of the ether. I’ve also experienced its polar opposite, periods of total creative sterility that have lasted for months or years. Inspiration struck with a song that I wrote a very long time ago, called I Spy, a slice of throwaway pop that seems to have held up rather well, if I say so myself… The words and music came to me complete in fifteen minutes, one Saturday afternoon. The lyrics are included in Jamboree Bag, the forthcoming sampler of my work. One verse ran:

You only live twice in a double life,
Double agent on heart sabotage.
A secret service and you were a wife.
Now that’s counter-espionage.
 
 I suspect you might defect and find another lover.
Treachery that I detect that goes on under-cover.
 
KGB – a kiss good-bye,
Is this treason that I spy?
CIA – chuck it away.
That’s the reason why I spy.

Very nearly Keats or Donne, isn’t it? I rarely experience this phenomenon in creative writing. No one or nothing else ‘takes over’. I have to concentrate fully and labour away at it. I’m certainly no genius, but I empathise fully with the spirit of Thomas Edison’s words – genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. There’s an irony here. Edison was the inventor of the first practical electric light bulb and yet downplayed the importance of  what we’ve come to call the ‘light bulb moment’ in his work. For me, those revelatory instants occur in relation to the genesis of overall book ideas. A story arc will tend to come to me, almost fully formed, in the course of a few minutes. This is all the stranger, given that the resultant book will usually take me several years to complete. It just goes to show the wisdom of Edison’s famous words. And it’s generally some aspect of my immediate environment that inspires the idea. I can recall most of these moments with absolute clarity. Stopping to look at a war memorial by the entrance to a World War Two bomber base in Lincolnshire, a fly-paper sticking to my hair at the writing den, walking along the corridor of a train carriage in Slovakia… But where the rest of the idea comes from, remains for me a mystery.

I wonder how inspiration manifests itself for other artists…

All text and image © PSR 2013

Nordic Obsessions

4 Oct

The Nobel Prize in Literature originates from Sweden (as regular readers will know, I’m lined up as a future recipient of the Prize – in an alternative universe, at least). Many of the early laureates were from the Scandinavian countries – Bjørnson, Hamsun and a whole host of others of whom I’m ignorant. Even the paper upon which their masterpieces were printed was probably made using wood pulp from Swedish sawmills…

At the start of this year, I boldly proclaimed that it was to be my year of reading Japanese writing. And so it has been, in a minor way. I’ve read The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. And then I read a brace of novels by Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s been hijacked, though, once again by my obsession with all things Nordic. One Roy Jacobsen novel, two by Per Peterson, two Moomin books read to my children, an Icelandic saga and Bodil Malmstem’s The Price of Water in Finistère. Malmstem is a new discovery for me. Her work is poetic and funny at the same time. And I’m beginning to see why so much fuss was made about Peterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It’s a beautifully crafted book full of haunting descriptions and fully-drawn characters.

So what is the origin of this obsession? All of those Scandinavian authors sitting on my Ikea bookshelves. The four Saabs of which I’ve been the owner… I met some great people from that part of the world at university, including my late, great friend Dyre. But I think that the seeds of it were sown in childhood, in my reading of Tove Janssons’s Moomin books. She brought alive for me the vast, depopulated landscapes and fuelled my curiosity. Later, I encountered Strindberg and Ibsen and was drawn to their psychological dramas (the former is the only playwright whose work I’ve directed). And then when I visited and saw those places at first hand, the obsession became incurable. I love my country – are you listening Daily Mail? – but find deeply distasteful the way English society has evolved during my lifetime. I feel much more in tune with Scandinavian social values.

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A grainy old photo that I took of a fjord

It gets worse, though. I wrote in my last post about the use of setting in my writing. I confessed to having placed a novella in a Norwegian lighthouse. One of my two works-in-progress concerns a country that sees itself as Nordic and another project that I may write begins in a fictional Scandinavian country. Oh dear! Among my raft of anagrammatic aliases are E Tovesen Laustrup (son of Tove, naturally) and Olav Peettrusens (putative author of my WIP). Help… Since there seems to be no cure, here’s a short extract from my lighthouse idea.

Maroon corduroy or black velvet?  That was the question.  It was Saturday night and perhaps the town might come to life at last.  He gazed at his image in the bathroom mirror.  The maroon corduroy jacket and dark brown shirt… they were perfect.  And surely there’d be some beautiful Scandinavian women out on the town.  He ran a handful of styling mousse through those dark curls as a signal of intent.

Placing a thermal jacket over the corduroy one, he plunged into the cold night air.  It was just a short walk from his duplex to the bar.  As he approached he could hear loud music mingling with raucous laughter.  Signs of life, at last…  So it was something of a let-down when he walked into the bar and found the same old herd wallowing in their beer and self-pity.  All the noise was coming from a band of young bloods in the corner.  They were clunking their glasses together and letting out hearty roars.

There being nowhere else to go, he sat on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered a beer.  He watched his fellow drinkers getting steadily drunk and soon he was feeling pretty squiffy himself.  And all the while, the young rowdies in the corner were growing louder.  He slouched there on his stool, wondering how on earth he’d ended up in such a place.

Things were turning ugly in the corner.  The young bloods had begun shouting at each other, shoving one another around.  Now glasses and bottles were being thrown and punches exchanged.  Those customers still capable of thought and movement started making for the street.  He crouched behind his barstool at the far end of the bar and looked on in amazement.  Eventually, the young men spilled out into the street, and there was silence.

Up-turned chairs and tables were scattered across the room.  The floor was strewn with broken glass.  The walls were spattered with beer and blood.  It looked more than ever like a saloon in a Wild West movie.  The bar owner must have been devastated.  He had emerged from his hiding place behind the bar.  Their gazes met.  The owner shrugged his shoulders:

“It is just a typical Saturday night.”

He placed a thumb on either side of his head and pointed upward with his index fingers, denoting a pair of horns.

“Nothing changes, you know.”

“But they’ve trashed your bar,” the Englishman objected.

“Yes, but in the morning, when they have sobered up, they will come to apologise and pay for the damage they have caused.  Calvinist guilt, the Nordic social conscience…  Some things are inescapable.  These will combine with the alcohol in their troubled Northern souls and compel them toward my door.  Then I shall drive to Ikea in Tromsø and buy some new furniture and glassware.  It is just the way of things here in Norway…”

So much for the sophisticated coastal metropolis…  The bar owner was right.  Little had changed since the time of Harald Hardrada.  He decided that he’d be stopping in at night with a mug of cocoa for the foreseeable future.

All text and image © PSR 2013