Friday, 27 February 2009

The Moving Finger Writes; and, Having Writ...

Do you believe in serendipity, luck, coincidence? Or do you believe, as I, the mind is unconsciously preoccupied with some vague idea and suddenly everywhere you look there seem to be articles on the subject precisely because your mind, being thus preoccupied, becomes aware of them?

My mind has been mulling over the advantages of writing directly on screen compared to those of writing on the page.

As I have mentioned before, I often pick up my pen when I am stuck for an idea. I find I am less inhibited by the choice of words, grammar, structure, etc. on the lined page. Once I have a direction, I switch to the screen. It is a less forgiving environment; one in which clichés, clumsy structure, sloppy composition and bad grammar demand immediate redress. This continual process of editing inevitably slows down progress and is, of course, a very contemporary malaise.

The trigger for this line of thought was the book I am currently reading, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. It is a heavily annotated edition that highlights any changes made by Collins on his original manuscript - they are few and far between. I look at his words in wonder that he had the discipline of mind to compose so much before he set pen to paper. I don't have that discipline; I use the screen to compose on.

As Will Self said in an interview, "I think the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head." (From a BBC report, here.)

I feel guilty doing so because it gives the false impression that my sentences arrive perfectly formed, their birth pain-free, whereas the truth is I spend most of the time demanding the midwife pass me the pethadone.

To return to the questions posed at the start of this post, articles on the subject suddenly crystalised in the ether.

Lane was the first with her prize of a $600 Montblanc Solitaire Meisterstuck 1648. She doesn't use it to write, in her words she 'didn't really bond with it'. I can identify with that; I have a dearly loved, cheap Parker fountain pen - I prefer fountain pens to biros - that has never once criticised me in all the notebooks through which it has travelled in my company.

Then on Gary's Twitter page, I find a link that leads to a post on Flashbake, a thingybob which 'looks at any files that you ask it to check […], and records any changes made since the last check'. In essence, it charts the history of your manuscript from mangled to perfection.

And yesterday the BBC reported on the The Slow Death of Handwriting.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Monday, 23 February 2009


I returned to University yesterday.

Obviously, I had to make certain sartorial adjustments to fit in and not look silly though I have to confess I did find it difficult to walk with my jeans buckled just below my buttocks. Still, I looked the part.

The reason for my return was to visit the library to research a couple of topics for my opus.

Sir Basil Spence was the architect of Sussex University. He most notably oversaw the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral after its destruction during the last war. (I note he was also the architect of Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, Trawsfynydd being the small village where we lived after returning from Malaysia, before the station was built.)

His design for Sussex is Neoclassical Brutal, to coin a phrase, the university being constructed in brick with heavy concrete Roman arches. It is something of an acquired taste but I love it. The library is set on a rise and approached by a broad flight of steps. The concept in Spence's mind, I am sure, was to recreate a Roman temple, one dedicated to learning; if so, he succeeds.

It is the most conducive environment to work in. There is an atmosphere of quiet and earnest endeavour though I do recall as a student the endeavour was, for the most part, a quiet and earnest panic. There are few distractions and it feels sinful not to fulfill your part in the study that surrounds you.

I shall definitely return.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Holey Moses

Somebody has buried something in Brighton and forgotten where.

It must be very valuable because, over the past year, every road in the city has been dug up, not once, not twice, but three, four or even five times. I do not exaggerate.

The road opposite where I live, Preston Street, is typical.

First they dug a trench the whole length of the street. But they didn't find whatever it is they are looking for. So a few weeks later, they returned to dig holes at regular intervals.

They still didn't find it but did feel they were getting warmer.

They returned to dig another hole at the top of the street, at the junction with Western Road. They were so sure it was there they dug right across Western Road.

Oh! the disappointment on their grimy faces when their efforts ended in failure. But they were absolutely convinced it must be there somewhere because they came back a month later and tried again.

Still no luck.

"Give up," I said. "You'll never find it."

"You might be right," they said.

I underestimated their persistence. They are back again and digging a bigger, better, deeper hole in exactly the same place.

I love the sound of a pneumatic drill first thing in the morning. It saves me setting my alarm.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Drip, Drip, Drip of Composition

Yesterday, I spent half an hour trying to think of the precise word needed to describe a certain situation. No wonder I find snails borrowing my keyboard to send e-mails to their chums.

Still, the book progresses. Word by word.

And talking of drip, drip, drip, I spent the last few days staying with a friend in Lewes and yesterday, Monday, the rain was relentless. The main street resembled a river as the water ran down the hill. Residents living by the banks of the Ouse must be greatly concerned as it was only a few years ago that the river burst its banks with disastrous results.

For those interested, the precise word was post.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Fleas: Adam 'ad 'em.

I am not a great one for poetry, if pressed I would say John Donne is my kind of poet. I like his conceits, particularly as they are usually concerned with sexual improbity. Hurrah! for sexual improbity I say. This is the first stanza from one of my favourites, The Flea:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee - subtle, eh?

I also adore Shakespeare's sonnets, not necessarily for the sentiments expressed but for the manner in which they are expressed, which is not to say the sentiments are unimportant or admirable in themselves but it is his technical facility with language that leaves me gasping. His early sonnets deal with notions of the fleeting temporariness of beauty and of man. I have chosen Number 17 because I like the ambiguity of the final line:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb,
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, 'This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.'
So should my papers (yellowed with their age)
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage,
And stretched metre of an antique song;
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice: in it, and in my rhyme.

Now we all know, in the early sonnets, Shakespeare is attempting to persuade the young man to take a bride; however, in this one, I see concerns for his own mortality arising. So I believe the last line not only hopes his rhyme will help prolong the life of the person in question but also that of the author. Indeed, one could argue this sonnet is self-reflective throughout.

Why this sudden interest in poetry you may ask, to which the answer is my researches for my book have led me to the poetic works of the Brontës. Melancholic is their tone, so reader beware. These opening stanzas from A Voice from the Dungeon by Anne are typical:

I am buried now; I've done with life;
I've done with hate, revenge, and strife:
I've done with joy, and hope, and love,
And all the bustling world above.

Long have I dwelt forgotten here
In pining woe and dull despair,
This place of solitude and gloom
Must be my dungeon and my tomb,

No hope, no pleasure can I find;
I am grown weary of my mind;
Often in balmy sleep I try
To gain a rest from misery,

… and so on. The work of Christina Rossetti is similarly baleful, mostly concerned with details of her own funeral if I remember correctly. It is not surprising their verse was so concerned with death when death was all around them. (There is also the feminist argument to be taken into account in that their lives were severely constricted in those patriarchal times.)

With the recent death of Lisa Ratcliffe uppermost in my mind, I shall dedicate this last poem by Charlotte Brontë to her memory, On the Death of Anne Brontë:

There's little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I've lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save

Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O'er those belovëd features cast.

The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me:
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;

Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.