Archive | April, 2015

108,000 Words

25 Apr

Looking back at my blog stream, I can see that it was over a year ago now that I reported I’d reached the 80,000-word landmark in my Work-in-Progress No.1 (see here). And now I find that in the intervening time I’ve added a mere 28,000 more. Life’s stresses and the rigours of work have sapped inspiration and motivation, to a degree. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, though. Much of what I’ve been doing has concerned shaping the manuscript’s rather unusual structure and making sure that all of its constituent pieces cohere. It takes time, you know, creating a cast of over five thousand and inventing a language. Yes, I like to set myself a challenge… If I get my act together, a finished piece ought to be achievable by the end of the year. I shall then unleash it on my small band of readers. I’m also toying with an internet serialisation of the manuscript, since I suspect that it may lend itself to such an enterprise.

An image from said work...

An image from said work…

It’s also noteworthy that my writing friend, J Huw Evans and I are re-instituting the writing group that we joined ten years ago. It fizzled out for all sorts of reasons around five years ago. I have produced a great deal of work in the last two and a half years over which nobody has cast an eye and Huw needs an incentive to get writing again. It seemed that the time was right.

Anyway, here’s an extract from WiP No. 1 that you may critique if you wish.

Now imagine this.  Instead of boarding the train, you’ve chosen to remain behind and take your chances, staying on in one of those suburban villas in Ooskr or Kedruus’s North Central district.  We must give you a name – Torkvil, perhaps – why not?  Obviously, you’re already regretting your decision.  What will we find there? 

In all likelihood, all of your neighbours have left.  To begin with, you’re pretty much alone.  The elderly and sick in the houses around you won’t see out the winter.  Diarrhoea and bronchitis are rife.  The city’s infrastructure has collapsed.  The hospitals are closed.  All of the doctors have gone abroad.  Public transport has ground to a halt.  Waste collection has stopped.  Utilities are no longer provided.  You have no running water or drainage.  There’s no domestic electricity, no street lighting.  Nighttimes are the worst.  Imagination runs wild.  Is that someone watching from the street outside?  Is there somebody on the stair?  The police force has disbanded.  Perhaps, given time, a citizens’ militia of some kind will emerge.  Or maybe there’ll be vigilantes and lynch mobs marauding through the streets.  Maybe there’ll be nothing but lawlessness and chaos, total social breakdown. 

There are no shops from which to buy food.  You have to forage, to scavenge, to loot.  You’ll have to turn the walled garden over to vegetables.  The ornamental trees and shrubs are long gone, cut down for firewood to see you through that first winter (most of your furniture has met a similar end).  You’ll sow potatoes, beetroot, cabbage, the sorts of crop that might survive Noorii’s short growing season and hard frosts.  Will they be fit to eat, though, or will the soil still be poisoned?  Perhaps you’ll start to keep chickens or pigs, if it’s possible to obtain such things.  Maybe opportunistic peasant farmers will come into town on their horses and carts, bartering meat and vegetables in exchange for your valuables.  You have to harvest the rainwater.  In some ways, your existence will not be so very different from our own.  You’ll have to make your own tallow candles.  Your clothes and shoes will come from raids on the wardrobes of uninhabited houses. 

Over time, people will move into those abandoned villas.  You’ll no longer be alone.  They’ll turn into squats.  Itinerants, lunatics, vagrants, petty criminals… these then are your new neighbours. 

And where will materials be found to stave off the structural collapse of your own villa?  You’ll have to cannibalise the surrounding properties for roof tiles, barge boards and window panes.  Paint and nails you’ll have to acquire wherever you can, from forgotten sheds and lock-ups, from empty factory premises.  The smart district in which you live will have become almost unrecognisable.  It will resemble an inner city slum.  All the shop fronts in the local parade have been smashed in.  A rusting trolej or trolleybus has stopped in the street outside.  There’s no glass left in its windows and the seats have all been ripped out.  The floor has become invisible beneath a layer of empty beer cans and vodka bottles, discarded articles of clothing and used condoms.  Drifts of detritus blow through the streets on vicious winds.  The villas are falling down, windows boarded up, slates missing, doors kicked in.  Everywhere there are rats and stray dogs.  Ask yourself, then – is this what you stayed for? 

It’s the exact picture that Haarald Halvmanis has imagined, on many occasions.  He has good cause.  His twin sister, Haana-Lottii, elected to stay on.  Halvmanis has not heard from her since.  And so here he is, alone in Compartment 38F-4. 

All text and images © PSR 2015

On Pretentiousness

20 Apr

What is it with the charge that this or that work of art is pretentious? There’s something in the Anglo-Saxon psyche, its atavistic beer-hall mentality that makes it decry anything perceived to be highbrow. And on one level, I’m there with my ancestral tribe, rallying against cultural elitism and exclusivity, repelled by the prissy and the precious. The flip-side of this is the English disdain for intellectualism. And running alongside, there’s a stream of cultural conservatism that wishes to rid us of all things avant garde, especially if they’re French in origin. Yahoo-ism is a very English invention.

Of course, pretentiousness abounds. It would be futile to deny it. Look at some of the puerile drawing and painting produced recently by the leaders of the Brit Art movement, for example. Think of ‘sixth form’ poetry, of free verse written by someone who knows nothing of poetic form or structure. You can’t subvert a medium until you’ve learnt to work within its conventions. That’s pretension.

Fear of the misunderstood...

Fear of the misunderstood…

The crime of pretentiousness is generally assumed to have been perpetrated by the ‘pseud’ or  pseudo-intellectual. Again the English attitude to this may be found in Private Eye magazine’s ‘Pseuds Corner’. Admittedly, it’s very funny. And it must also be conceded that the majority of those featured there fully merit their inclusion. This was the treatment meted out to poor Max Harris, editor of the avant garde Australian magazine, Angry Penguins in the 1940s, victim of a prank by the pseud-busting poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. They invented the deceased modernist poet, Ern Malley, then persuaded Harris that his obtuse and portentous canon was real before revealing their hoax. The funny thing is, though, that like the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the mere sound of Malley’s verse is rather appealing. Ian McCulloch also comes to mind here (a lovely fellow whom I had the pleasure of interviewing, many years ago). ‘John Webster was one of the best there was/He was the author of two major tragedies’, he crooned then cheerfully admitted later on that he’d neither read nor watched either play but had merely seen the titles on his sister’s bookshelf. Through sheer charisma, though, McCulloch gets away with it and Echo and the Bunnymen’s The White Devil is a triumph. Sometimes, the naivety of pretension has its charm.

The search for meaning...

The search for meaning…

I would say that pretentiousness occurs where an artist attempts to suggest that his work carries meaning which simply isn’t there, over-inflating its significance, alluding to the work of others he neither knows nor understands. Such pieces may be littered with images devoid of meaning. The artist would have us believe that his work is difficult when actually meaning can’t be divined because there is none. In fiction, characters become the author’s mouthpieces, digressing into cod-philosophical monologues to show off their creator’s erudition (ersatz-science is the latest manifestation of this). Reference is made to high art to demonstrate how cultured the author is. Entire passages are written in Latin or French to punish the ignorance of those who cannot read them. Yup, that’s pretension.

For me, the problem arises when any work of art that is remotely abstract, allusive or experimental becomes labelled as pretentious. Then we end up with middlebrow work that neither aspires nor inspires. Experimentation isn’t pretentious per se. It’s an expression of our joie de jouer (yes, I’m aware of the irony). Renouncing all challenge and ambition in art is a recipe for dumbing down and that’s just about where we’ve got to in England right now. In the words of The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon in Dumb It Down, ‘Your concentration span’s too long/It’s longer than this song, that’s not allowed’.

I’m pretty sure that much of my writing would be written off as pretentious by many people. Since I know it’s not, I can live with it… I encountered this criticism with my last novel, where some readers wished that I would just stick to a single narrative and tell an unadorned war story. It seemed to me to be missing the point rather.

And, of course, any article which calls itself ‘On’ something or other is almost certainly pretentious. Oh, well…

All text and images © PSR 2015

Visitation

12 Apr

I’ve just got back from a restful and productive week at the writing den. Although technically I’m an alien there, the perpetual visitor, I feel no less at home than in ‘my own’ country. I’m beginning to pull together the strings of Work-in-Progress No. 1 and a completed piece of sorts is emerging. And I finished at last the Martian Amis book that I was reading.

This time, I visited in the company of my two children. We have a favourite picnic spot, by the side of a lake with woodland walks. On the penultimate day of our stay, we ate our baguettes and cheese then set off into the woods. My son was the first to spot them. Subliminally, on the periphery of my vision, I thought that I saw something too. I had with me only my rather poor camera phone. The sunlight was streaming through the gaps between the trees and I couldn’t see the screen as I captured the images. Until I got home, I wasn’t convinced that I’d taken pictures of anything at all.

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After the initial shock, the brightness of the colours was the most surprising thing. In film, they’re almost always presented as monochrome, made from some silver-coloured alloy or finished in black or white. As we approached to inspect them, they would drift away from us, always slightly out of focus. No matter how my daughter chased after those shapes, she never came any closer to them.

What were they, then? The big tops of some pan-galactic circus? The mobile homes of a race of interplanetary nomads? The cities of a sylvan people? I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

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I lost site of my children for some minutes. When they returned, they seemed changed somehow. They were angelic, immaculately behaved, their hair even more blond, their eyes greener… Perhaps, during that lost moment, they were taken on-board those beautiful ships.

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On our way home, in the gathering darkness, listening to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, we passed a cottage, located close to the writing den. I noticed that a window was open although all the lights were out. I pulled over and peered in through that window. The interior had been ransacked. There was no sign of the owner. Had he been visited too, then? Perhaps there is some point in the universe where it will always be 18:07 and 26 seconds, earth time.

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And now that I’m home again, I feel that I’ve changed somehow too. I couldn’t say how for sure. All I do know is that I can’t wait for the next visit.

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All text and images © PSR 2015