Saturday, 8 September 2007

But does it tickle when you kiss?

Little did I imagine when I opened this blog with a sideways look at the planners who were responsible for naming the streets of my home city that facts would catch up with my fiction.

Anyone wandering through the streets of this city last weekend would have witnessed some strange hirsute sights. People looked like they had stepped out of another century. Or had recently arrived from the Planet Hairy.

Neither was it only the men who sported whiskers, I noted one or two women with some fine moustaches.

They had all descended on the city because Brighton was playing host to the World Beard and Moustache Championship, the first time this event has been hosted in this country.

It was to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Handlebar Club. Inaugural members included Jimmy Edwards and Frank Muir, which will probably mean nothing to most of you but they respectively achieved fame in their day as a comedian and a radio writer and raconteur. (Jimmy Edward’s figure could best be described as dumpy. I remember once watching him play polo, a sport of which he was particularly fond yet totally unsuited. He was as elegant in the saddle as a sack of potatoes on a seesaw.)

Appropriately enough, the winner, Elmar Weissar, (the gentleman to the left), came from Germany. And in the interest of maintaining the link connecting our two countries, he sported a full set in the shape of Tower Bridge.

I ask you, you couldn't make it up, could you?

(All photographs are by Andy Barker.)

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

You say zucchini, I say courgette.

Stuart, my permaculture friend, recently posted what sounds an absolutely delicious recipe for courgette/zucchini. I am a fan of this vegetable, especially raw, but never know how to cook them other than in a ratatouille.

However, his post reminded me that I had cut a recipe out of the Guardian Weekend supplement sometime ago. It was written by Rose Elliot though is originally an Elizabeth David recipe. (Phew, copyright issues over.) I haven’t tried it as yet but it does sound good. As Rose Elliot says, it is very buttery.

I’ll reproduce it as originally written.

Serves two to four, depending if you have it as first or main course.

900g courgettes peeled and cut into 5mm rounds. [I think the peeling is optional as in the photograph accompanying the recipe in the original article, the courgettes were au naturel.]
75g butter
450g tomatoes, skinned and chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Soft breadcrumbs, for topping

Put the courgettes into a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave for at least 30 minutes. Drain and blot dry.

Heat 25g of the butter in a pan and fry half the courgettes until ‘soft and transparent looking’. Transfer the courgettes to a gratin dish and repeat with another 25g of the butter and remaining courgettes.

Melt half of the remaining butter and fry the tomatoes with the garlic, parsley and some salt and pepper until most of the liquid has reduced, leaving a ‘thickish puree but not too dry’.

Amalgamate this with the courgettes in the dish and smooth the top with a spoon. Sprinkle with a light layer of breadcrumbs and dot with the last of the butter.

Bake at 220C/425F/gas mark 7 for 25 – 30 minutes. (Vegans use five tablespoons of olive oil instead of butter.)

If anyone tries this before I do, let me know what you think.

Sun, Sea, Sweat.

Brighton! Brighton! Brighton! The place not to be on a Bank Holiday. Especially when the sun shines. Even more especially when the proceeding eight weeks have seen a continuous downpour that would bring back happy memories to Mr. & Mrs. Noah.

My daughter, her fella and my granddaughter had planned to come and see me but they have just moved into their new house. Their first home. How wonderful.

So instead of coming to treat me to Dim Sum, (ah, how I love Dim Sum), they were queuing at Ikea along with the other half of the population who didn’t come to litter Brighton’s beaches with their bodies.

Poor them! Poor me!

Actually, quite rich me. I spent ten hours on Saturday editing a thirty-five page document for Tom, my recently rediscovered benefactor. (And long may he remain so, say I.)

This was on top of other work I have been doing for him in his role as Communications Manager for an NGO. My given title for that work is Editorial Consultant. I have never been an Editorial Consultant before. It makes me feel very adult.

I doubt if it is a position I could have held earlier. I was not so much slapdash but certainly careless about detail when younger. Detail bored me. Now I find it strangely therapeutic to structure the text so it is consistent in style and detail. It is not exactly creative but there is a satisfaction to be had in resolving technicalities. It offers the simple pleasures an artisan must experience bent to some intricate task.

And, talking of artisans, I must phone my daughter to discover how she is managing with her flatpacks. Will it be the allen key that is missing this time, or a vital thingymabob?

Monday, 20 August 2007

Ramblings about Scribblings

For some time now, I have scribbled short notes on books I have read. Initially, I guess, it was as a result of my university days. It seemed a waste not to put all the knowledge gained to some positive use. It also proved a practical aide-mémoire, my memory needing all the practical aide-mémoires it can get these days. But increasingly it serves another purpose. Now that I am trying to write myself, I find myself searching under the bonnet of the work trying to figure out how it has been assembled, to discover what makes it tick.

Setting down my thoughts helps me distil the significant elements of the book. Sometimes, this proves enlightening, at others disheartening. The latter because most plots, when refined, are remarkably simple, which leaves me feeling sort of cheated. There must be more to it than that, I think. And, of course, there is. If nothing else, it emphasises the need for quality in the writing and characterisation. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is the best example that immediately springs to mind.

Can you imagine touting that plot to a publisher?

"Got a surefire winner here, Sam. Man goes fishing, catches fish."

Anyway, in between reading Proust's In Remembrance of Things er... what was it again, I have been reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka.Though not finished, here are my thoughts so far.

The book has a small but well defined cast of characters. They consist of a family of father, mother (deceased) and two sisters and an intruder, namely Koyla, Ludmilla, Nadezha, Vera, and Valentina.

The narrator, Nadezha, is a left wing lecturer, her sister a committed materialist, the father an engineer with somewhat confused humanitarian principles, the absent mother a romanticist (am not totally certain of this description), and the outsider a greedy, grasping, totally unprincipled woman bedazzled by the glitter of capitalism.

The plot is uncomplicated. The mother has died two years earlier and the remainder of the family, originally from the Ukraine, have all now grown apart when, to the consternation of the sisters, the father announces his intention to marry Valentina, a blowsy Ukranian well under half his age but with the undoubted bonus of a pair of Botticellian breasts.

The story revolves around the efforts of the sisters to patch up their political differences sufficiently so as to oust the cuckoo from their familial nest.

It is a topical, dealing, as it does, with issues of immigration, though unremarkable plot. Three things, however, lift it from the ordinary; the characterisation of the protagonists; the wit of the writing; and the insertion, periodically, of texts from the short history of tractors, written by Pappa and translated with the help of Nadezha.

With this clever device, Lewycka, gives her characters an historical setting, adding a context to their petty actions without ever attempting to rationalise or analyse them. It adds depth, interest and weight to what otherwise would have been an amusing but light tale.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Times of Trouble. Times of Respite.

The edges of my blog are curling and there are definite signs of foxing on the screen - it's been that long since I posted here. However, I have either been busy or not busy and miserable. In fact, the last few weeks go down as miserable with a big capital M.

Avid readers will know that I was doing a painting job for a friend of a friend. I don’t claim to be professional painter but do pride myself on doing a good job, to which at least one of my readers can testify. In my naivety, I had imagined that the individual concerned was financially strapped. (How wrong was I? While there I discovered that she was buying a second house so her son would have somewhere to stay when he went to university. I ask you! Halls of residence are obviously not good enough for the delicate child.) So, having estimated the job would take around two week, I was careful with my time and how I spent it.

About two-thirds the way through the work I received a call saying that she didn’t want me to continue. She gave some spurious reason or other. When I went around to collect my money, she said she wasn’t happy with my work, pointing out faults I was perfectly well aware of but had left. In terms of priority and saving time, hence money, I’d calculated it would be more efficient to do all the touching up at the same time.

I explained. She didn’t listen.

She gave me a cheque for the time I had completed when I had last given her an update on the hours spent. I had worked another day since. She refused to pay for it.

“We’ll agree to disagree,” she said in her best mangerspeak voice.

“We won’t,” I replied in my best barelycontainingmyanger voice.

“Well you can always pursue it, if that’s what you wish,” she continued, now using her best patronisingmanagerspeak voice.

“Pay me the money you owe me and I might be able to afford to do so,” I riposted in my sharpest aciddrenched voice. I was rapidly running out of voices, so left. Fuming.

A week later I receive a letter from my landlord’s agent saying, as I was behind with my rent, they would be taking proceedings. Proceedings followed shortly in the form of registered mail, which I left lying around the Post Office Collection Point for a week in the hope it would be used by someone for his origami classes.

I collected it. It was exactly the same form as before, though this time from solicitors. It too warned of proceedings.

This, I thought, is very unfair. I have been playing this game of catch-up with my agent, a lovely man, for years. Now he has taken my ball and won’t return it.

More proceedings. My agent is on my doorstep.

“Tell me, David, what is the position?”

I explain the position using diagrams backed up with a short PowerPoint presentation. Briefly, it explained that he had the ball and should now return it. (I had diagnosed the principles of tennis in my presentation as an analogy.) He wavered.

“I will e-mail you,” he said. I sensed the ball was in the air again.

He hasn’t e-mailed as of yet but I shall e-mail him for I have news. (In this game, unlike tennis, it is always advisable to alert the other where you will be sending the ball. And despite the fact that I technically don’t have the ball at this moment, I can point out to him where it will be bouncing on his side of the net should he lob it back to me.)

My news equates to work. I had applied for a job and put down someone who had previously commissioned quite a lot of work from me as a reference. I phoned him to warn him. It was a vague gesture, as I knew he was now based in South Africa and I only had his UK mobile number.

Holy miracles of modern technology! He only phones me back the following day having noticed I had tried to call him.

“What are you up to?” he asks.

“Oh, this and that,” I replied nonchalant as a seal lazing on Nonchalant Beach.

“I was just thinking I might have a few days work for you.”

The nonchalant seal suddenly becomes a very eager beaver. The result is I have had more than a few days work and with more promised. Hats in the air time, followed by bouncing balls, I shouldn’t wonder.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

More on Similes, Metaphors and the Like

For reasons I shall explain later, I have embarked on the somewhat daunting task of reading all six volumes of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, published by Vintage, 2002.

To the contemporary reader, Proust’s diction now appears elaborately ornate, overly sensitive, almost unwieldy in its diagnosis of detail and sentiment. But what is initially most striking for the reader is the sensation you have meandered into a mist of metaphors and maze of similes. This is typical:

‘The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt I would be kept waiting a moment in the outer room where the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, which was already alight between its two bricks and plastering the whole room with a smell of soot, turning it into one of those great rustic open hearths, or one of those canopied mantelpieces in country houses, beneath which one sits hoping that in the world outside it is raining or snowing, hoping almost for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of being in winter quarters to the comfort of a snug retreat; I would pace to and fro between the prie-dieu and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie, an immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers and patterned wall-paper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.’

It takes time to focus your vision, to find your feet, so that you are not constantly stumbling in this fog of words. However, as the eye adjusts so you begin to appreciate his enterprise and the manner in which it has determined his approach. He is, after all, examining the function of memory and time from a very personal perspective. Indeed, how else could it be other than from a very personal perspective? This, in fact, is the question at the heart of his endeavour.

In philosophical terms, Proust is a phenomenologist, a follower of Hegel, Husserl and other so-called continental philosophers. Without getting too deeply involved in the arguments, I can suggest that phenomenology puts forward the concept that what we see is not what is actually there, i.e. the essence of what is there, but our idea of what is there. (So phenomenology, in the words of the French thinker and contemporary of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, ‘is the study of essences’.)

Early on, Proust announces the tenet of his novel:

‘Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing someone we know” is to some extent and intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice as if it were no more than a transparent envelope, that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is these notions which we recognise and to which we listen.’

In brief, we don’t see the man but our idea of the man. And this notion of the man is so personal, so deeply rooted in private recollections, individual experiences and associated sentiments, how can we possibly hope to share our understanding of that man with others?

Proust’s solution is two-handed. On the one, he charts every brook, every rill, every tributary that swell the river of his remembrance in such faithful detail that the final picture emerges virtually on a one to one scale - the description surrounding the incident of madeleine cake being a case in point. On the other, he resorts to the metaphor and simile in the belief, it strikes me, that not only are they poetic in their power to evoke a mood, event or place, but also, and as a consequence of the first, because they represent a common ground of understanding that can best convey the specifically personal.

The more I read of In Search of Lost Time, the more I have the sensation that I am exploring the work of some impressionist, Monet perhaps, Cézanne more like, but from within the canvas.

Apart from the pleasure it is affording me, why am I reading it? The answer is much of my MA was devoted to the study of phenomenology and to Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular. My fellow post-grad on the course was the hugely talented and exceptionally beautiful Katerina Pottakis. (Truth is she was the only other person on the course; how lucky was I?) For her final dissertation, she chose, or more accurately was coerced into writing her 20,000 words on Proust’s novel.

Image that, poor thing, she had to read all six volumes plus other works and produce her paper all within three months. Anyway, in a form of delayed solidarity and consolation, I promised her that I would get around to reading it one day (though not in the original French as she did, Katerina being able to speak and write in Greek, French, English and Spanish, all fluently – not fair, is it?) So, voila!

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Chapeau à toi Caroline!

I have this minute finished reading Caroline’s Smaile’s In Search of Adam. I picked it up this morning at eleven o’clock and have not put it down since. I thought, while still reeling under its influence, I would set down my thoughts in a formal review.

In Search of Adam is an astoundingly courageous book. From its concept, to its style, to its presentation, it crosses a landscape littered with potential pitfalls. In the hands of a lesser author it would have fallen flat on its dust jacket within five pages. Caroline Smaile, however, has negotiated all with a sureness that is masterful.

For a start, its subject matter, child abuse, is not the most comfortable to confront, neither as a reader nor as an author. But to deal with it from the point of view of the child, and to trace the path of that child as she grows older, without once resorting to sentimentality on the one hand, or sensationalism on the other, requires not only great sensitivity and insight but, above all, control of the material, in fact all the qualities that Caroline displays.

Caroline adopts a very individual, stylised form of address. Again it is a high-risk option that could so easily subtract from the substance. Yet it doesn’t. On the contrary, it lifts and colours the psychical topography of the young Jude, the protagonist, so that what is, in essence, irrational in her behaviour and outlook becomes, if not rational, at least comprehensible to the reader. Her fractured way of thinking becomes yours.

Finally, Caroline plays with the typographical layout, another dangerous strategy that, when tried elsewhere, has proved, at best, irritating and, worse, pretentious. Not so here. It adds to the whole as a form of visual metaphor that underscores whatever is taking place on the page. The eye absorbs it barely aware of the mood it helps create.

With this book, Caroline has marked all our cards as a serious new contender on the literary scene.

Pleasure without Guilt is no Pleasure at All.

OOOH! I feel so guilty! I should be decorating a friend of a friend's house but... I know I need the money but... I bumped into someone I haven't seen in ages yesterday evening and she invited me back to share in an impromptu dinner party with her flatmate, a concert pianist, and a neighbour, the daughter of a very, very, very famous times infinity artist to whom we were not to refer, so... the gin and the tonic combined with the wine and the last gin and tonic and sauteed chicken and mushrooms and another glass of wine thank you... and I managed to avoid mentioning or indeed referring in anyway whatsoever to the very, very, very famous times infinity artist though he kept popping his name into my head (shall I give you a clue? but you won't believe me even if I should say but his name begins with P) and... you can imagine the conversation was of art and books and music and other topics that are my delight... and every so often the flatmate would leave the table to play a piece and instruct me in the subtleties of the music, I being very ignorant on such matters, though... I am going to Glyndebourne on the twelfth of this month for the first time ever, something that I mentioned every so often during the course of the evening so as to reassure the others present that I was not a complete cultural wasteground though another glass of wine would be nice... and oh my goodness it is one thirty in the morning and I am alone with my hostess and would I like one more gin and tonic... I can't, I have to work in the morning but... that would be very nice, so... John Humphrys is muttering in my ear something about bombs and arrests and... what was that? 8:45, it can't be but... it IS! Instant guilt... not that I have to be at the house at any particular time, however some time would be welcome... but wine combined with gin and tonic and sauteed chicken and another glass of wine... and paint? I don't think so.

Friday, 22 June 2007

The left, right, left right of writing

In October last year, I interviewed a local author for a paper I contribute to. He writes under the name of Sebastian Beaumont and had just had his first mainstream novel published,Thirteen . By that I mean he had had six other works previously published but they would all be classified as gay literature. (Strange how we like to classify, categorise, segment, divide and rule; read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison for more on this theme.)

Apart from having the opportunity to review my first book – I summed it up as being ‘a psychological and textual tease’, and an excellent read it is – I looked forward to questioning Sebastian on how he set about his work. At the back of my mind, I was vaguely hoping to hear phrases like, ‘when I can be bothered’, ‘in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzied haze’ or ‘when the muse flutters down and settles on my shoulder’; indeed any phrase that would let me off the hook from writing something of length myself. But no such luck. The words he actually employed sent shivers across my keyboard; they were ‘discipline’ and ‘routine’.

“Damn,” I thought, “if I had wanted that I’d have joined the army.”

Routine is an anathema to me. I have spent my life avoiding any form of regimentation as I regarded it as the death of the creative idea. In one sense I still believe this to be true. You cannot manufacture or force creative ideas; they arise when your mind has defined all the parameters of the problem you face but not arrived at a logical deduction thereof, or writing would be the equivalent of mathematics in words. Creative solutions are Eureka moments. They arise when your concentration is elsewhere and some connection, or series of connections, is made in your subconscious, et voila, the solution; a unique solution, an original solution because the connections that were made happened in your head and were not mechanically grafted.

On the other hand, creative writing isn’t just about ideas.

There is that word ‘writing’ that implies some form of action. In the first place, writing per se may be regarded as a craft and as such requires practice and hard work. (To generalise, one can say the more one writes the better one writes, though this is not necessarily true for all: I once knew someone who wrote obsessively yet, despite possessing a startling imagination, everything he wrote read like an office memo.)

Within the context of creative writing, however, writing fulfils another function; it provides the parameters through which you create. By that I mean, as you progress so your characters become more sharply delineated by the events, situations or other characters they meet. It is part of the novelist’s job to create these events, etc. to help define the main characters. But as the characters take on dimension and colour so they themselves will help create new events in that they will act and react in a certain way to given situations. There is a poetic circularity to this form of creation.

My conclusion is the very act of writing generates the creative problems that need some form of inspiration to resolve. So if one wishes to write a novel, those dread words routine and discipline perform very necessary functions. Which is not say that you shouldn’t nip off to the wine bar or for a long walk when you become stuck for an idea.

I have discovered, for me, matters move along at a jauntier pace if I first write in longhand. The difficulty I have writing on-screen is that I am so used to writing shorter pieces I have this tendency to constantly self-edit, which means I am concentrating more on the craft than the flow. When I write longhand, I care less about my use of words or structure but become more entangled with my characters and their world.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Pictures of Children

This is just a very short blog - I am in the process of writing something else but this question has been bugging me.

I have my first grand-daughter, a two year known by me as Beach Ball as I have never seen a child with such a perfectly circular head. She is, needless to say, perfect, adorable, funny, enchanting, huggable and someone I see too little of.

I would love to show some pictures of her but stop short of doing so because I do not want her image to end up in some, how shall I put it, unfortunate's album, especially as my and her mother's name are very distinctive and would be easily traceable and , additionally, because of the indescrible horror the McCann family are living through at this moment.

What do other parents/grand-parents think?

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Living with Tarantula

Ha! I discovered my flatmate, the so-called Goth, secretly sunbathing topless on the balcony. Notice that she has covered her face so that when dressed in her trademark floor to ceiling black witch’s weeds none of her cronies will notice her betrayal of the most fundamental of their principles.

I know I’ve been a bit sneaky and doubtlessly would be sacrificed at one of the ritual meetings they hold every evening in the graveyard of St. Nicholas Parish Church if she ever found out. However, I think I am safe, as she doesn’t know I blog.

Her name is Tarantula. Obviously it’s not, it’s Camilla but she only responds to Tarantula.

She has just finished her first year doing art at Brighton University . Her end of year show was impressive in the way she refused to acknowledge that there was any other colour than black. And black, as we all know, is not so much a colour but the absence of colour.

‘That’s just so typical!’ she would retort. ‘You’re so prejudiced! You’re just like my stupid teachers always trying to shove their stupid theories on colour down our throats when it’s so obvious colour is just a social construct. You see black, I see a rainbow. God I hate this place.’

I have moderated her language as Tarantula does tend to season it well with coarsely grated expletives, this despite the fact she is actually very posh and attended Roedean , one of the more exclusive private schools for the education of young ladies.

As you can see she is not without talent, though slightly obsessive in terms of her subject matter.

You can’t imagine the storm of outrage that struck this humble abode when Damien Hirst recently unmasked his latest artwork, For the Love of God.

‘That’s just so typical. The b•••••d has ripped off my ideas. I did my paintings ages ago and he’s gone and copied them cos he hasn’t had a single original thought since he stuffed that stupid shark. I’m going to get Daddy to sue him for plagiarism.’ (This is a heavily censored and curtailed version of the actual tirade.)

I pointed out, very reasonably I thought, that making a platinum cast of a skull and then embedding it with 8,601 diamonds might take a little longer than four weeks – the time that has elapsed since the opening of her show. It was a mistake.

Sometimes I think life would be less complicated if Paris Hilton came to stay.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Avoidance Tactics or more on the Art of Procrastination

A couple of days ago Kate wrote about the joys of procrastination, which ended in a lot of comments about the role pillow washing plays in that process. (Weird or what?)

However she opens her piece by writing:

‘OK. So I have made a start on Book 6. Actually, I started book 6 late last year, got just under 10,000 words in the can, and then decided to work on Book 5 instead.’

And she has the cheek to call herself a procrastinator! She wouldn’t make it past the doormat at my procrastinators’ club. (The fact is no one makes it past the mat at my procrastinators’ club as all the members forever put off that dreadful moment they have to get off their arses to get down there.)

Sticking to the topic, I would add I find blogging itself is a curiously satisfying means of avoiding doing anything genuinely constructive. I don’t know whether this is true of every blog, but this one is particularly fussy. It’s not just a question of typing the stuff and posting it. I have to fiddle around with bits of code to create links, post pictures, italicize, etc. so what should take a few moments can waste a whole morning. Joy!

I have to confess, despite my addiction to putting off the inevitable, I have been writing my book! And to demonstrate just how unlikely this is, when I admitted as much to a friend yesterday afternoon she just laughed.

Progress is slow and painful but, nonetheless, it is progress. I still I have little idea where the book is going. Recently I read on a fellow book racer’s blog that they had created a grid for their characters and plot to help them organise their writing. (Apologies to the blogger concerned but I have just wasted a happy thirty minutes trying to find the original article without luck. If you should come across this, post a comment and I will create a link.) It seems an eminently sensible idea that I will attempt to imitate, but it does presuppose that I have a plot.

At the moment I have an incident, a number of characters, and a tone of voice that I am happy with. The personalities of the characters are gradually emerging and, though I can see the story developing in a number of ways, I sense their final development will dictate the eventual direction it takes.

So should I persist with my characters until they become fully rounded or should I decide on the final outcome of the narrative? Ho hum, decisions, decisions, writing a book, I find, is full of them.

Final word goes to Caroline whose book In Search of Adam is being launched next Thursday. Congratulations! Buy it.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Ismail Kadare, Broken April

Published in 1978, Ismail Kadare’s Broken April is a disturbing book, not just for the story it tells but also for the world it describes – the high plateau region of Albania where life, or more accurately death, is dictated by the medieval rule of Kanum.

The law of Kanum manages, indeed, profits, from the blood feuds between families or clans. It dictates how a man’s honour is offended and how it may be redeemed, it defines territorial boundaries, it decrees the periods of truces, the location of safe havens and the worth of an individual – a wound amounts to half blood and attracts a fine, two wounds are worth a life, a woman’s life has the same value as that of a dog and is equivalent to a half life.

The story opens with Gjorg, a twenty-six year old, fulfilling his blood duty in revenge for the death of his brother in a feud that has continued unbroken for seventy years and already cost twenty-two lives. The feud was initiated the fateful day a stranger sought the hospitality of Gjorg’s family. Under Kanum, the guest is a demi-god who must be honoured as such, so, when the man is shot just within the boundaries of the family’s village, his death becomes their responsibility and must be avenged.

The narrative follows Gjorg during the thirty day bessa, or truce, he is granted in order to make the journey to pay the blood money to the prince and his subsequent encounter with a couple of strangers touring the area on their honeymoon.

Kadare writes in a tight, sparse style but he is also necessarily didactic in order to explain the law of Kanum to make the tale comprehensible. And, the story he has to tell, haunted as it is by this barren landscape and ancient rule of fate, superstition and Homeric gloom, seems so foreign, so otherworldly, it is hard to accept it is set in relatively recent times.

( Though Broken Spring was written thirty years ago and much has changed in the world since, Kanum is still a malevolent force in Albania, I quote from a recent Home Office document, entitled, Operational Guidance Note: Albania :

‘Under the kanum, only males are acceptable targets in blood feuds; however, women and children were often killed or injured in attacks in 2006. According to the National Reconciliation Committee, approximately 860 families were effectively self-imprisoned during 2006 due to blood feuds. Property disputes accounted for four-fifths of formally declared blood feuds during 2006, with the remainder pertaining to issues of honour or violations of the home (e.g., theft, trespassing, etc.). The NRC estimated that there were several hundred additional blood feuds stemming from trafficking, which are typically not formally declared out of shame. Of the 738 families reported effectively self-imprisoned in 2005, 166 left the country, including 93 families that sought formal political asylum in other countries. The NRC claimed that fear of revenge prevented approximately 182 children from attending school in 2006, 86 of whom were permanently confined to their houses.’)
(Albania OGN v7.0 3 April 2007)

Thursday, 31 May 2007

On the Simile and Metaphor

I have just stared to read Victor Pelevin, The Clay Machine Gun, he being someone of whom I have never heard despite the fact that his book was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. (Why on earth I should know what books are short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize I have no idea but, nonetheless, I feel qualms of guilt.)

Pelevin, according to the notes, is hugely popular in Russia and, to quote the New York Times Magazine, is ‘a genuinely popular serious writer’.

However, to get to the meat of the matter, the tropes that have suggested this piece are my friend Stuart’s favourite bugbears, the metaphor and simile.

In chapter one, Pelevin writes: ‘there was the same grey sky like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God’.

A witty description most would agree, even Stuart, but what does it add, I wondered, to my understanding of the state of the heavens? Surely it is sufficient to describe the sky as grey, a state recognisable wherever one lives?
To be fair to Stuart, his objections to the metaphor and simile are not to them as tropes per se but to there misuse either through overuse or their inappropriateness. So, to return to the simile in question, does it fall into either of these categories? For obvious reasons, a single simile cannot be classified as being overused in terms of one of too many, so does it fall into the second category?

While it would have been sufficient to have left the description of the sky as grey, the addition of the simile adds a quality, not necessarily to my understanding of the state of the sky, but to my understanding, if you like, of the climatic conditions of the novel.

I am in a place where an absolute being apparently makes himself comfortable on a lumpy grey mass of water vapour thus threatening to crush the perfection of his creation. This is obviously a place that is subject to a fine precipitation of irreverence and gusts of mockery. (Pelevin is not the only one permitted to indulge in metaphorical whimsy.)

What is the conclusion to these rather trite observations? Only this, that one function of the metaphor or simile in the novel is to create an ambience for the whole, and that, judiciously used, it acts like the music track to a film in helping to underline qualities of the narrative that are best dramatised obliquely than through direct description.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Les Jours à Salade

It is the last day of May and another wet, miserable day. (Hurry up global warming I say, at least here in Brighton.) As a consequence I have spent the morning constructively mooching around the web before remembering to pay a visit to a blog I came across sometime ago. If anyone wants to see just what a blog can be, there is no better example than Petite Anglaise .

As the author outed herself, or more accurately was outed with the benefit of an additional ‘s’, i.e. ousted, by her former employers for blogging, I can name her as Catherine Sanderson. Happily, Catherine won her claim for unfair dismissal in March this year and was awarded €44,000 damages plus costs. (I discover in the same article that this practice of being fired for blogging is known as being dooced ‘in honour of the American designer and blogger Heather Armstrong, writing under the pseudonym Dooce, who was fired in 2002’.) The event hasn’t caused Catherine permanent damage. Her sudden leap to fame brought an invitation to appear on Richard ‘n Judy (ok, that must have hurt) and a two book deal with Penguin.

In a recent article for The Guardian, Catherine writes of the dangers of blogging, specifically with regards to employment, but also the fact that your once closely guarded anonymity can be compromised. Now, the fact is I have never made any attempt to preserve my privacy online and, to be honest, as a writer I don’t want to. I don’t pretend that anything I write is necessarily the truth. I use this space to muse, scribble, fantasise, and invent. Or, rather, I will use this space to muse, scribble, etc. However, I recently had occasion to reconsider my brashness when I came across a horrific example of cyber-stalking as documented by the blogger, Rachel from North London. I only skimmed some of the history but it appears some lunatic called Felicity Jane Lowde has hounded this unfortunate woman for over a year. Despite court orders and the like she is still the target of this woman’s unwarranted venom.

I do envy Petite Anglaise and not just for her facility with words but also because she lives in Paris. I too once resided there for a couple of years. As you can see, I lived in the 5eme arrondissement, a mere 200 metres from Notre Dame (which was handy as I was a practising Catholic in those days).

Be you of the faith or not and if you’re ever in that city, take time out to visit the cathedral when they hold a recital there or a sung Mass. The music gathers in a cloud that seems to float overhead in a manner that is, in the true sense of the phrase, awe inspiring. I don’t suppose it is any accident that the acoustics create such an effect as I am sure that that was precisely the desired outcome of the generations of builders who constructed the building.

These images, which I have borrowed from Wikipedia, contrast Notre Dame post its recent restoration to the state it was in at the turn of the last century.

Notable is the state of all the buildings on the Île de la Cité, which look uniformly grim in their soot. One can only imagine that every major city throughout Europe must then have appeared equally forbidding. Indeed, I remember as a boy being driven through Liverpool, en route to the station and the miserable journey that would take me to my boarding school, and thinking how black and dirty everything seemed compared to the clean, rain-washed Welsh town of Dolgellau where we then lived. (And, I hasten to add, this was not at the turn of the 19th century.)

I loved living in Paris, especially once I had found my apartment. It was situated on the second floor and so typically had a balcony that ran the width of the building. This I could access through any one of three sets of windows that opened out on to it from my interconnected living rooms.

(The bloke having one of his many cheeks pinched, and who was as tall as he was wide, is Remy Fabrikant, a Swiss German/French art director who greatly enhanced my life in Paris. I miss him and his gargantuan appetite for life.) All the rooms, bar the kitchen, were stately in their proportions and as I only ever used the kitchen to boil the kettle I didn’t really care how small it was.

Regularly on my way across le Pont St Louis, which connects the two isles in the Seine, towards my favourite bar in the Marais, le Petit Feu à Cheval, rue Vieille-du-Temple, I would pause to look downstream towards the Eiffel tower across the floodlit brilliance that is Paris at night and pinch myself just to check I was actually present.

I have always been a Francophile and rue the fact that my mother, who spoke perfect French, never conversed to me in that tongue from birth. So I arrived in France with slightly better than ‘O’ level spoken French, which didn’t improve much for the first six months as I was working in a small office of mixed nationalities, so everyone spoke English. However, after that period I was moved to work in the main agency (advertising) to work with a French art director, Hervé Plummet, whose English was worse than my French. My linguistic skills improved dramatically in a comparatively short period.

The urban myth is that all Parisians are markedly rude, even the French living outside the capital claim so, but I found them no ruder than Londoners and in certain ways friendlier. If you make the effort to speak their language, they’ll make the effort to pretend to understand. Early on in ma vie en Paris I went to buy a ticket for the Metro.

‘Un billet à l’Odeon, si vous plaît,’ I asked in my politest French.

Unfortunately no one had informed me that double ‘l’ after an ‘i’ is, in most cases and certainly this, silent. What I had in fact asked for, as any French speaker will tell you, is a billet, or a bed, to the Odeon. Eventually the laughter on the other side of the grille died down but only after I had blushed to the roots of my hair (not a claim I could make now) wondering precisely what I had said. I just thought if I have to make an arse of myself every time I open my mouth in order to learn this language then arse it is. And cul it was.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Blogs, Blogging and History

I have been following a lively debate about the pros and cons of academic blogging being conducted by a number of military historians, two of whom, coincidently, I know,Ester MacCallum-Smith and Gary Smailes.

Gary writes about ‘[t] he democratising effect of the web,’ in the sense, as I interpret it, that the web breaks down the historical, hierarchical academic structure; with the result that this will release ‘a hoard of amateur historians.’ He goes on to argue ‘that control will be brought about through the development of networks and communities, with university lecturers forming an integral controlling factor. They will act as a ‘listening post’ and a ‘voice of reason’ in the fragmented network of research groups.’ In other words, a sort of Blog Open University of History.

I am no historian, military or otherwise, nor am I an academic though, having completed an MA in Modern French Thought, I would classify myself as a textual interrogator, not strictly a Derridean deconstructionist but inevitably persuaded by his thought. That said, the current discussion has prompted me to ponder on the question of what is history and what it is to blog.

History must always be contemporary; its function, determination and application is governed by the underlying assumptions and values – cultural, political, religious and social – of the era in which it is discussed. The web, of course, influences all these factors. (In fact, one can argue, it is helping to polarise and entrench opinion within certain of them, e.g. religion and politics.) But is it a determining cause or a contributing factor?

It is a fact that just as it is impossible to see the ground directly beneath one’s feet so it is to see the presuppositions that one stands on in life, which is precisely why we need historians and philosophers to look back and analyse the ground we have covered in the hope that we will better understand the point to which we have arrived as well as provide answers as to where we might be going. (Down the pan if I continue this metaphor much longer.)

If I take Gary’s ‘democratising effect’ as the assertion by the individual to claim back what he regards as rightfully his, and combine that with the rise of blogging and online networks then I believe you can identify a drastic shift of the individual’s sense of identity, not in the sense of who he is but what he is, his Being. (And forgive me for using the male gender but it is a tradition in philosophical thought, a description that inflates the value of this text to the point of pretentiousness.) Though this modification has not necessarily been wrought by the web, the latter has for sure aided and abetted it.

It is the manifestation of identity through a form of symbiotic relativism. It is not, in Ester’s words, so much ‘[w]e think therefore we are, therefore we blog’, but we blog so that we are because we are linked. My Being is confirmed by my connections. (Be honest, how often have you Googled yourself?) It may be regarded as the polar opposite of Sartre’s thought where the Other was always hostile and thus ‘the essence of relations between consciousnesses… is conflict’? (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 2001, p. 429.) Now the essence of relations between consciousnesses is confirmation, albeit remotely, of mutual self. In fact, the remoteness of the relationship is not an unfortunate happenstance but essential. Again we have swung 180 degrees, this time from the Socratic belief that the written word is to be distrusted, as it is open to interpretation without immediate riposte, to the idea that the written word, however slippery, has some form of immortality attached to it unlike the spoken word or, indeed, ourselves. Our blog is now our soul.

This is a long way from the original debate, but that is blogging for you.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

I have to say that ever since I signed up to the 'In search of Adam' campaign my flatmate has been taking it very seriously.

She spent the whole of this morning scrutinising every individual the length and breadth of Western Road. The fact that is was a beautiful sunny morning was obviously just a coincidence, for when I accused her of using the unfortunate Adam as an excuse for starting her tan, she was most indignant claiming that she was a Goth and sunlight was a complete anathema to her - pale skin being de rigeur among her kind. After which she flounced out of the flat and spent the rest of the afternoon down at the local police control room studying the input from the 3.9 million CCTVs that spy on this little city of ours.

Don't ask me how she managed to blag her way in but she spent a fruitless afternoon and came away suitably pale and wan.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

After further research into the Miss Thompson twins, as I believe it is now safe to refer to them, I have discovered the remarkable influence that they had on the young, and older, Winston.

Is it too much to conjecture that the young Winston's prelediction for le chapeau melon, as our whimiscal French cousins like to refer to the bowler hat, was as a direct influence of these two formidale ladies?

He certainly continued with the style into his later years.

Though, perhaps, he eventually rebelled against it.

In the beginning…

I live on Western Road, Brighton, in a large thirties building accommodating five floors of purpose built flats, six floors if you include the penthouse (but I don’t as that is way above my means let alone my head).

Western Road is the main shopping drag in Brighton. At one end, it plays host to the city’s modest shopping mall, Churchill Square, and, at the other, the floral clock. While some may feel that so naming the mall is a slice of self-aggrandisement too far, there is a tenuous link. As a young lad, Churchill did attend a preparatory school for a brief period run by the Misses Thompson in Hove. Though the good people of Hove may feel pissed off by this theft of a piece of their corporate identity, Brighton’s need for tokens of respectability is greater. Brighton has never had a good press ever since George Part III went mad and allowed his son first to open the Regency and then the Pavilion .

You can’t help feeling whoever it was that baptised the roads of Brighton were somewhat confused about the compass. No argument that Western Road is appropriately named as it does point towards the setting sun. However, the street that runs in the opposite direction and points to the rising sun is named North Street. While the street that leads in a southerly direction down to the sea is named West Street. By the time they came to identify a road to christen South Street, the authorities that be had given up. What, by their logic, should have been South Street is called Queen’s Road. These were clearly not naval men though loyal to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria d'Este of the House of Hanover, every one.

Brighton is not a place for the paranoid. With over 4 million CCTV cameras constantly broadcasting, this noble and once free country of ours is now the most scrutinized on earth. And of those 4 million, 3.9 million are concentrated in Brighton. Paranoia is contagious especially among the boys and gals in blue. Brighton police famously overact to any form of demonstration. During the early days of protest against the Iraq war, I counted 150 protestors being shepherded down Western Road by over 200 police – this soon after I had attended a demonstration in London where over a million demonstrators were marshalled by a single mounted policeman on a white horse.

Am I paranoid? Not me! Just because I don’t trust anyone doesn't make me paranoid. Oh no! It may make them paranoid, but not me.