Monday, 31 May 2010

String.

I was building a support structure for my sugar snap peas today, and made a startling discovery. I like string – a lot. It has to be the right kind of string, of course. Nylon string is horrible. Even though the stuff I unwound from some discarded fishing net on a beach in Northumberland once is strong enough to lift a battleship, it’s still horrible. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t tie well, it feels artificial – and it’s orange! Orange string. Pfhh...

The string I bought for the spring garden work this year is natural jute twine, not the dark green coloured variety. It’s a pleasure to work with. Simple, naturally textured, unpretentious, functional – and it has an earthy but sweet smell that I can’t stop sniffing. I’ve become a string sniffer. Blow me; after all these years I’ve found my substance.

Two other notes before you go away again:

Hello and welcome to Lauren. Glasgow! Now that really is exotic. ‘Scottish steel and Irish fire,’ as one Glaswegian once described the character. Billy Connolly, Rab C, the gritty romance of the Clyde... The only time I drove through it, I got stuck in the slowest moving traffic jam ever. I was late getting to the Highlands, but never mind. The journey isn’t about getting there, is it?

And don’t forget, Mr Grimshaw goes up at the other place tomorrow.

Off you go.

Brief.

Just a brief note before retiring.

Hello Russia, land of music and mystery. You’re very welcome, whoever you are.

Costa Rica, too. Wonderful!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Excited.

On a lighter note, I have to mention my flaggy thing again. I’ve now had a visitor from Russia. Russia! Imagine that! There’s something dark, mysterious and exotic about Russia. Samovars, balalaikas - and dancing troupes that blow your mind. And, I have now had visits from seventeen US states. Only thirty three to go for a full set!

Now, you might think that all this excitement about the international diversity of my blog visitors is a bit, well, childlike. Er... maybe. But it’s also about connections. It’s about hands around the world. And who wants to be a grown up anyway?

The Scapegoat.

Ian Duncan-Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, announced the details of the new Welfare Reform Bill last week. They’re going to clamp down on the unemployed, apparently. This is an old cloaking device that governments trot out occasionally when times are financially difficult. They know that there is a sizeable portion of the population who like to entertain the simplistic notion that the unemployed are responsible for the unemployment rate. I’ve frequently heard invective along the lines of ‘Why should I pay taxes to keep the layabouts on the dole queue in the lap of luxury?’ It’s an old story.

Well, let me say a couple of things here. Firstly, I know there is a hardcore of perennial unemployed who’ve never contributed anything to society and never will; but they’re in the minority. Secondly, I’ve been unemployed a couple of times myself, and I can assure everybody that, for most people in most situations, the level of benefit is woefully inadequate to pay for even the most fundamental living expenses. It isn’t even comfortable, let alone ‘the lap of luxury.’ But let me go back into recent history for a slightly broader view of this subject.

When I left school there were very few unemployed people, because if all else failed, all you had to do was go to the nearest factory and pick a job from the vacancies board. It’s how I got my first job while I was waiting to go in the navy. Something like 80% of the factories in that city have now closed. The second biggest employer was mining. There are no pits there any more. The third biggest employer was a major steelworks. That’s gone, too. The same is true of industrial areas all over the old world. Alternative jobs have been created in things like call centres and the leisure industry, but they’re not as stable and they’re not enough.

In the 90’s we saw example after example of banks announcing record profits, followed by a further announcement of job cuts. Technology was doing the work, so why employ people? By getting rid of the jobs, they could make even more money for the executives and shareholders. The primary aim of the private company is to make money, not provide jobs. Jobs are only the means to an end, not an end in itself. They like to crow about how many jobs are being created when they’re trying to get over planning objections, but it’s just a tactical device which really shouldn’t fool anybody any more.

Running alongside this process has been another one. The minimum school leaving age was raised, and then pressure grew on young people to stay in education even longer by going to college or university. A large chunk of the working age population was removed from the job queues that way. And yet there are now an estimated – depending on how you define it – 10% of the working age population of Britain who are unemployed and claiming some form of benefit.

Doesn’t anybody see the bottom line here? There aren’t enough jobs to go around. It doesn’t matter how much pressure you put on the unemployed, it won’t make any difference. The only way to get the figure down is to create jobs, which isn’t happening. Ironically, the government also announced cost-cutting measures last week which will destroy even more jobs. Blaming the unemployed for the unemployment rate is a shabby political device, but it works because too many people can’t see beyond the bigotry and the rhetoric.

It also seems ironic to me that a mere three weeks into the present government’s term of office, a minister has already had to resign over fraudulent expenses claims. And who stood up and said he was ‘very sorry to see him go?’ The very same Mr Duncan-Smith who wants to beat up the unemployed and make them scapegoats for a situation created by the move towards a more free market economy, the development of technology, and government policies over the last few decades. I have to wonder where the said minister’s priorities lie.

But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The business of government isn’t about doing the right thing. It’s about making impressions, creating illusions, and maintaining popularity by pandering to mass prejudices. And when any government wants an easy target, the unemployed are the first against the wall.

Money.

The concept of money fascinates me. It doesn’t actually exist, does it? It’s just a mechanism operating by mutual consent. It’s no more than countless billions of electronic impulses flashing about in the computers of the world’s banks, and being given the appearance of reality through scraps of paper and chunks of base metal issued by groups of people we call governments. It’s the most obvious of life’s illusions. And yet it dominates the very fabric of our existence.

Those who have ‘lots’ of this thing that doesn’t exist can have almost anything they want. Those who have ‘none’ of this thing that doesn’t exist can literally die of starvation. We have so rarefied the concept of value that we have completely lost touch with its relevance to worth. This strikes me as an odd way to carry on. What am I missing here?

On a more philosophical level, I argued in one old post that we shouldn’t persuade ourselves to contentment by comparing our situation with those worse off. In so doing, we are likely to fall prey to the corollary; we are equally likely to persuade ourselves to a state of discontent by comparing our situations with those who are better off. There was a news report today which said that a study had shown that those who compare their salaries to others’ are more prone to depression. Really? It took a study to work that one out, did it?

It reminded me of a ‘study’ carried out by a British university a couple of years ago. They spent a lot of time and money establishing whether ducks actually like water. It seems they do, so we can all now rest easy in the reassuring knowledge that lots of this thing that doesn’t exist has been wisely used in telling us something we really needed to know. Hallelujah!

I have little doubt that one day in the not-too-distant future, all this will come crashing down around our ears. And then the human race will be forced to re-evaluate the concept of value.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Mysteries.

This little flaggy doo-dah that I now have attached to my blog is proving an endless source of mystery and amusement. Sixteen visits from India. India? I have a soft spot for India; I would love to talk to somebody from there. But I haven’t a clue who it is (or who they are.) Same with Arkansas – three visits from there. Who lives in Arkansas? Hello, Arkansas. *Waving* Talk to me.

Then there’s Chris from the Emerald City (Followers, not flags.) Are we talking Seattle or Oz here? Hello Chris, whoever you are.

I do wish you’d all introduce yourselves. Hands around the world, and all that.

It’s 1.30am in dear old Blighty. I think it’s time for bed.

Friday, 28 May 2010

So, instead...

I keep meaning to post a rant about our new government running around like children with a new toy, exulting in their new-found power and telling us that this is going to change, that has got to stop, these people are going to be forced to do this... etc, etc. They only formed their coalition two weeks ago! For heaven’s sake, let us breathe will you? Frankly, their overbearing and oppressive attitude is getting on my nerves - and that’s the problem. Every time I lay the details out in my head, I start to get depressed about it. If there’s one thing I really, really hate, it’s control mania.

So instead, I’m posting something to the other blog. Dear Andrea (or Molly – such a nice name, Molly) from Tennessee has rekindled the ‘bit of a thing’ I have about the Brontes. During the winter I re-read Wuthering Heights – twice! I’d already done some groundwork on the whole Bronte family, and Emily in particular, and saw the novel in a completely different light. So obvious was this ‘revelation,’ that I decided the whole world has been misunderstanding it for 161 years, and set about writing an essay on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. Since it’s unlikely ever to get published anywhere else, I thought I might as well put it up here for anybody interested in either the book or Emily Bronte.

I do realise that some people have already read it. Rest assured that I still intend to post the next story, Mr Grimshaw, some time early next week.

One World.

And now there’s one from Vietnam! Isn’t that just splendiferous? People from eleven countries have visited my blog. Connections, connections. One world! Let’s all just get together, have a bloody great party, and be friends.

La Belle France.

With all due respect to everybody everywhere in the world, I have to say that I got quite a lift when I saw that somebody from France has visited my blog. Amelie, La Mer, Monsieur Hulot...

And it reminds me of a funny story.

The parents of an ex of mine went to France on holiday. Her mother was reasonably fluent, but her dad wasn’t. He was an old time Lancastrian who still commented on the lowering sky of an approaching storm with the time-honoured phrase ‘Ee, it’s a bit black over Willie’s ’en pens.’

They stopped at a service station, and dad decided he wanted a map. He asked his wife to make enquiries. She remonstrated with him, saying that all he needed to converse with the locals was confidence. ‘Don’t try to translate,’ she said, ‘just BE French.’

OK.

He went up to the assistant, performed the best Gallic shrug he could muster, and said ‘Got a map?’

Whoever it was who looked in, bonjour et bienvenue.

Patience.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Preview.

OK, in the best tradition of Saturday morning cinema you get a trailer for the next story to be posted at the other blog.

I thought long and hard, and decided the next would be Mr Grimshaw.

What do you do when you find a ghost sitting in your favourite armchair at midnight? What do you do when he disappears, only to reappear weeks later somewhere else? What do you do when he finally speaks to you, and you discover he isn’t even a conventional ghost – and he expects a sacrifice from you?

Coming to the other theatre in less than a week.

Wonders on the Doorstep.

This is yesterday’s news, but I was too busy yesterday so I’m posting it today.

First, an update on the celebrated strawberry. It gave me a dilemma. I put it on a white painted windowsill to finish ripening, and it sat there for most of yesterday looking beautiful. It was big, it had a deep, even colour, and there was no sign of a blemish. It was the model strawberry. I just wanted to look at it; eating it seemed almost sacrilegious. I reasoned with myself. Life moves on and the strawberry wouldn’t stay like that forever, so I ate it in four bites. At first I thought there was something amiss; it didn’t taste as I expected. But then I realised the truth of the matter. The taste was so much richer and sweeter than you get with shop bought ones. This is generally true of all home-grown produce, of course, and I should have expected it. I hope this is just the start of a summer of strawberries. Strawberry heaven, indeed.

And now, two notes about the kids from the village primary school.

I watched them yesterday when they came out for their run around the playing field, the bottom end of which faces my garden on the other side of the lane. They ran down the side of the field that borders the lane, and then turned right to run along the bottom edge. There is a field on the other side of the fence there, containing a herd of young heifers. The cows had seen them coming, and had moved up to the fence to watch. As the school party turned the corner, one of the little girls waved to the cows. That set them off, and they ran alongside the kids on the other side of the fence. When they got to the far end, the teacher let the kids and cows get to know each other. Young humans and young cows playing together and being friends. It just shows that you don’t need to travel to see the wonders of the world, just keep your eyes open.

And then there was a knock at my door later that afternoon. It was somebody delivering an envelope addressed to ‘Mr Beazley, the rhubarb man.’ Inside was a batch of letters written by kids from the school, thanking me for the rhubarb I gave them recently. I had loads of the stuff, far too much for me to eat, and I hate food going to waste. I offered some to the school and the cook was glad of it. It seems that Angela the cook had made it into rhubarb crumble and the kids had enjoyed it. This is one of the letters:

Dear Mr Beazley

Thank you so much for the lovely rhubarb that you gave us here at Norbury School! Angela (the lovely cook) made it into rhubarb crumble which we had with custard. Everyone wanted seconds! We are really grateful that you gave us the gorgeous, mouth watering rhubarb. It is the best rhubarb I have ever tasted! We would be even more grateful if you would be able to provide us some more!

Best wishes
Rachel
Year 6

There were four others like it from Freya, Ebony, Sam and Ben. Isn’t that amazing? I don’t mind admitting it brought a lump to my throat. Life can be so bloody nice sometimes.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Legs and Low Whistles.

I watched the TV news tonight. Why did I do that? You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. Every item I saw contained something that reminded me yet again of the greed, selfishness and petty preoccupations inherent in the mindset and value perceptions of the ‘developed world.’ I switched it off after half an hour, but I was already sunk in depression by then and couldn’t shake it off.

I had an idea. I decided to watch Riverdance again – the original version staged in Dublin in 1995. It proved to be the cure I hoped it would be. Just the first seven minutes of that video are sublime. First, a haunting slow air played on the low whistle by the incomparable Davy Spillane; and then the colleens chorus take the stage. Oh my giddy aunt! Short green dresses and black-clad legs flashing hither and thither, hitting the floor and high-stepping in time to a driving, rhythmical beat. Send the lap and pole dancers to the back of the queue; those Irish girls are sexiness personified. So then we move on. Fast forward through Mr Prize Pillock Michael Flatley’s ego-ridden solo (please don’t tell me he’s a good dancer. I know,) and then Anuna take centre stage with their atmospheric, slightly dissonant harmonies. More beautiful women. Am I feeling better by now? Yup. The piece de resistance finally arrives: six young girls perform a gentle jig before Jean Butler makes her entrance. Jean Butler is the closest I’ve ever come to a definition of the perfect woman. Emotional explosion. Never fails.

I felt better, immeasurably better. Thank you Ireland. Erin gra mo chroi.

Strawberries and Clouds.

Today’s big news: I picked my first strawberry from the new plants in my greenhouse. That’s the first home-grown strawberry I’ve ever had. It was big.

I also saw something odd tonight.

Late this afternoon there were long, billowing ribbons of cloud stretching from the western sky all the way over to the eastern one. They were a mix of smoke-grey and white, like something belched out of hellish fires somewhere over the horizon. Except that the white fringes at the western end were not white at all, but pale yellow from the rays of the sinking sun.

I went out later and the scene had changed. The light-fringed clouds were still there over my head and to my right, and they were moving west-east. But another set of pure grey clouds occupied the other half of the sky, and they were moving in the opposite direction. They passed each other, like traffic on a dual carriageway. I suppose they must have been at different altitudes.

Later still, and the clouds had settled again into a uniform movement. The fringes of the western clouds had gone, however, and been replaced by an under-painting of salmon pink, as though they were sitting in some bath of coloured liquid.

It’s bed time. No clouds now, just a nearly full moon in the southern sky.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Keep on Looking.

I came across an interesting quotation in a book today, from one Louise Gluck:

We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.

Generally true, no doubt; but it doesn't have to be that way.

Having Slept On It...

I was thinking of deleting the last post. In the cold light of day it seemed like nothing more than one of those sudden, almost involuntary, growls we utter when anxiety has been sitting imp-like on our shoulder all day, and a couple of drinks have led us to want to swat it rather than try to ignore it. I’ve been told – by two different people – that my ‘clan totem’ is the bear, and bears are expected to growl now and then, aren’t they?

But then I realised that ‘Am I entitled to be here?’ is actually quite a profound question. It branches out into several other questions that are fundamental not only to the way life is lived – our systems, mores, conditioning, and so on – but to the very nature of life itself.

So I decided to leave it up. And I’m choosing to be enigmatic. Lunchtime.

What Did D. Adams Know That I Don't?

How many roads must a man walk down?

Forty two.

Over to you, world. Tell me the secret. I’m done for now. Might feel differently tomorrow when the pair of C’s (yes, that was a joke) currently running the country finish announcing their announcements.

Am I entitled to be here?

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Blow Trumpet.

Today’s big news: the May is out! It's nine days later than it was last year. To explain, I’m pasting a bit of a story. Saves typing it again.

The hedgerows and many of the trees in this part of the world are hawthorn, and their full grown blossom is one of nature’s most prolific visual delights. There is something almost surreal about the sight of trees laden so heavily with dense white flowers that it appears a heavy fall of snow has landed on them. Set against the bright green of the late spring growth, and placed within a context of high summer temperatures, the effect is almost hypnotic.

And now I quote Tennyson:

Blow trumpet, for the world is white with May.

And then I sat in my garden through the gathering dusk tonight, concentrating on the song of birds. Nature’s music.

Friday, 21 May 2010

The Wonders of Official Advice.

The pendulum has swung dramatically. This time last week the temperature in central England was 50F. These past two days have been very warm, and tomorrow we’re forecast to hit 80F. It takes me back to this time last year, when the British Met Office put out a long range weather forecast saying that we were likely to have very hot, dry summer. Not only did the media engage in its customary habit of sensationalising the unknowable, but the government got into the act as well. Some previously unheard of advisory body sprang up and told us how we should handle the dangers of the impending heatwave. They offered three bits of invaluable advice.

‘Before the heatwave starts, ascertain which is the coolest room in your house so you’ll know where to retire to when it gets hot.’ Let’s face it, anybody who doesn’t already know which is the coolest room in their house would be unlikely to survive getting out of bed too quickly, let alone a serious heatwave.

‘Make sure you have a fair weather friend, somebody you can call on if you get into difficulty.’ Do I need to point out that they can’t even get the terminology right, because a ‘fair weather friend’ is the opposite of what you need? It’s somebody who only wants to know you when everything is hunky dory, and runs the other way when you’re in trouble. But then there’s the question of how we were supposed to go about getting this friend, assuming we don’t already have one. Put an advert in the local paper?

Best of all: ‘Paint the outside of your house white.’ Oh, right. I’m laughing too hard to comment on that one. Except to stutter that there must be around 30 million dwellings in Britain. That’s a lot of paint, a lot of money, a lot of time, and one hell of a lot of pointless bullshit from those whose job it is to run the country.

And to top it all, last summer was on the cool side with a fair amount of rain.

When all else fails...

I've been far too busy to post any random musings today - the weather is warm and the garden is trying to catch up from the cold spring. It's going ballistic!

So, a few more pictures. A random selection of things I haven't put up before, just because I like them.













Thursday, 20 May 2010

Oberfuehrer King and the Grammatical Nazis.

There is currently a craze going on among the gestapo fringe of the small press regarding the use of adverbs. These grammatical Nazis are trying to ban them. I usually shrug this sort of thing off with some muttered invective to the effect that they might be more usefully employed searching for their errant brain cell. I was, however, curious to know how this strange state of affairs had come into being. And so I did a bit of digging.

I found a literary reviewer’s blog, in which he reviewed Stephen King’s latest short story. The review was a favourable one, but then he went on to remark upon the fact that King was the man responsible for the ‘current hysteria’ over the use of adverbs. He had written a book apparently, in which he said they should never be used. The reviewer’s purpose in mentioning the fact was that he had done an inventory of the short story in question - and found a hundred adverbs. Physician, heal thyself?

I do admit that the overuse of adverbs is clumsy. I even admit that I am sometimes prey to it myself, although I edit fairly rigorously and trim them down. But there is nothing inherently wrong with them. If I change ‘the bird rose swiftly into the air’ to ‘the bird’s ascent was swift,’ I am then guilty of using passive voice and another editor will complain about that. Besides, it changes the rhythm and nuance of expression. When all’s said and done, writers must be allowed their style.

I am a fan of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Fowler points out that English is not Latin and shouldn’t be judged as such. English is a language of usage, not rules, even though some of the usage is so universally accepted that it looks like rules. And there’s nothing wrong with generally following the conventions of usage, as long as we realise what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But that’s as far as it goes.

So can I offer a word of advice to aspiring writers? When you come across a set of guidelines that carry a statement along the lines of ‘We will not accept any story that contains an adverb,’ as I have, move on. The ‘editor’ who wrote that knows no more about good writing than I do about the burial practices of the Sumerian second dynasty. If, indeed, there ever was a Sumerian second dynasty. Use your adverbs sparingly, but use them freely if you believe they have a purpose. Know when and why you are rebelling against convention – and rebel away.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

So, Define Justice.

Crime and punishment I understand. The state says you can’t do something; and if you do and get caught, the state punishes you by way of deterrence. Although I’m sure the value of deterrence is vastly overrated, at least the principle is clear enough. The problem is that the whole subject gets listed under the heading of Justice, and I struggle to know the difference between justice and vengeance.

Someone said ‘Revenge is the abject pleasure of an abject mind.’ There is an undercurrent of presumption in the conduct and governance of what we like to call ‘civilised society’ that vengeance belongs to the lower mind and a lower order of social organisation. ‘Justice,’ on the other hand, has gravitas. It has a noble ring to it. It speaks of order, propriety and balance. It is a force for good, protecting us from the wild, dissolute and dangerous excesses of an unregulated society. Nobody questions the rightness of justice. It’s another thing that lifts us above the level of the animal, because it has thought behind it.

My problem is this: I agree that revenge is the abject pleasure of an abject mind. I’m human enough to have wanted it on occasion, but the higher part of my mind rejects the concept. I recognise it as something unworthy that lurks in some dark corner of my emotional response system. And so I experience a certain conflict, and I wonder whether the resolution lies in understanding why justice is a wholly different thing.

Frankly, I don’t. I’ve heard people being interviewed about some crime or other. They say they want justice, even though it’s apparent that what they actually want is vengeance, and they are – consciously or unconsciously – using a euphemism to legitimise a reaction that is culturally unacceptable. I’ve heard politicians and policemen trotting out the old rhetoric ‘This is not about vengeance; this is about justice.’ ‘Justice has been done,’ they say, when they actually mean that revenge is sweet.

I’ve considered whether justice is nobler because it leans towards recompensing the victim. But we still seek justice, even when there is no possibility of recompense. I’ve wondered whether it’s all to do with balance. But so is vengeance. An eye for an eye is the same whether it’s taken by the state or the victim’s family. And yet one is just and the other is deemed to be criminal.

So far, all I’ve been able to come up with is the notion that justice is regulated vengeance; it is vengeance with thought behind it. Does that make it so different? I’m not saying that we don’t need law; heaven knows the human animal hasn’t reached that stage of maturity yet. But it strikes me that the difference between the two is a lot smaller and less clear than most people think it is.

Anyone who has seen the final scenes of 'Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence,' and been as moved as I was by the poignancy of it, will know what I mean.

Monday, 17 May 2010

A Muse on the State of Flux.

When I look in the mirror in the morning, I appear the same as I did the previous morning. I’m not, of course. I remember what I saw in the mirror ten years ago, and twenty years ago. I look different now, and the changes didn’t happen overnight. It was a constant process. It is a continuing process. It’s a little sobering to think that every night when I go to bed, I look older than I did when I got up. Change has been happening since the instant of my conception, and it won’t stop until I’m dead and come to dust. The same applies to every single one of us.

And it isn’t just a matter of physical appearance; it’s everything. Our attitudes, opinions and perceptions change constantly. It’s usually a slow process, and most of the changes are imperceptible until we look back to who we were at some point in our own history.

One of the biggest changes is in our overview of the thing we call ‘my life.’ We look back to our young days, when we saw life as an endless future replete with so-far unrealised events and experiences. And then we realise that we are looking at it from nearer the other end, and most of that future has been spent. All those days, weeks, months and years are now history - dead and petrified in memory and two dimensional images on a piece of paper or a video tape. Our perception of time changes, and what seemed endless now looks not only finite, but very short. The things we thought important in our teen years seem unimportant now, because they were so short-lived and very few of them can be taken with us when we go.

It would be easy to see all this in a negative way, but I don’t. If life is in a constant state of flux, then every new second brings with it a new me. Life at the deepest level isn’t merely the road to dusty death, but a constant process of renewal. And when my little life is rounded with a sleep, I believe the process will continue at that deepest level, and the experiences of my history will continue to inform what is, in reality, a truly endless future.

Whether or not the concept of past and future has any basis in ultimate reality is maybe a little beyond the parameters of this post. Best leave that one to Einstein and the more advanced mystics.

Me, with Apologies.

Am I a voice crying in the wilderness? Am I a didactic martinet? Am I insecure and arrogant, since one is often the corollary of the other? Why am I concerned about what I am? Does anybody other than me care? Of course not; why should they?

Don’t know. I’m just in that kind of mood today.

This is what comes of thinking too much. Must pay a visit to the cows in the field opposite my house tomorrow. They're very beautiful. If there is to be a tomorrow, of course.

You never know, do you?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Genius Gene.

There’s another story up at the other blog. It isn’t very good.

Which reminds me of something. I was once married to a woman who was descended through the female line from the Boules (Professor Boule of binary system fame, and Ethel Voynitch the novelist.) Being geniuses, the Boules were a strange lot, and my mother-in-law told me a couple of stories about them. I wrote them as part of an editorial once, so I thought I’d paste them here. The style is a little severe, but you’ll forgive me no doubt. I was younger then.

My mother-in-law, whose maiden name was Boule, had two sisters. When they were children in the 1930s they used to spend part of their summer holidays staying with a maiden aunt in Ilfracombe, North Devon. Ilfracombe lives on tourism these days, but it was considered a somewhat staid, middle class, English seaside retreat then – the sort of place where old army officers went to retire.

The aunt was a stern old spinster and the children were required to do everything by the book. Etiquette ruled, and one of the most revered conventions of traditional English culture was the taking of tea at around 4 pm.

One hot summer’s day, the children scrubbed up and dutifully took their places at the table laden with teatime fare. The aged aunt sat to attention at the head, sporting her customary frown. There was an unfamiliar pot sitting among the jams, marmalade, honey, muffins, cake and toast. It contained a recent arrival from America – peanut butter. The aunt scowled silently at each child in turn, then pushed the pot down the table and said

“Have some jam. It’s not very nice.”

***

A generation back from her there were two sisters and a brother, none of whom ever married. They lived and grew old together in the same house. The brother had some sort of medical condition - maybe he’d had a stroke or something, I don’t know – which caused him to hobble around with one shoulder raised higher than the other and a perpetual drool coming from his lips. His speech was slurred too, and he was described as being “a little vague.” I imagined him as a sort of cross between Quasimodo and Richard III.

One of the sisters died. On the day of the funeral she was laid out in her coffin, as was the custom then, in the best room in the house. The coffin lid was shut but there was a glass panel in it, through which the face of the deceased could be seen.

The brother shuffled over to pay his respects, bending down to kiss the glass. It was a cold day and the panel misted over as he breathed on it. He became very agitated and hobbled around the room crying

“She’s alive! She’s alive!”

The mourners looked at each other in alarm until the surviving sister took him firmly by the arm, marched him over to the coffin and said

“Of course she’s not alive, you fool. See?”

Then she lifted the lid and stuck a hat pin into the body to prove it.

Times change.

Friday, 14 May 2010

My First Time.

I had an odd experience this evening. I went to stand in the lane at dusk. The weather is a little more clement and I wanted to feel the atmosphere, as well as watch the bats that are now very active again.

The peace was supreme. The newly clothed sycamores were still and statuesque, the bend in the lane where the darkness descends looked as mysterious as ever, the bats were flitting hither and thither, extracting copious greetings of delight from me, and the subtle scent of fresh growth in the evening air was sublime. I stood for about ten minutes feeling that sense of wonder, the nature of which I always find a bit elusive. It’s somehow beyond the capacity of the brain fully to work out.

And then a car came down the road, a big SUV coming at speed. I made for the shelter of the hedge, my stomach knotted with the sudden violence of a car’s engine and the unholy illumination from its halogen headlights. It felt intensely wrong, so wrong. I told myself that I, too, drive down country lanes sometimes. It helped a bit, but not much.

I’ve never felt that before. Am I getting closer to what matters, or merely becoming alienated?

Two Questions and Yet Another Woman Called Emily.

I watched a wildlife documentary last night, which included a feature on bees. We were told that bees are essential to humans, because without them nothing would get pollinated and we’d have no food to eat. Einstein calculated that if bees became extinct, humans would follow about five years later. No bees = no crops = no humans; got that? Fair enough. But then we were told that bees aren’t indigenous to Britain; they were introduced by the Romans.

So my first question is this: how did people manage to live here and grow crops for thousands of years before the Roman occupation if there weren’t any bees? I’m not denying the science, I just want an answer to the question.

And then tonight I saw that there’s a sports documentary coming up called ‘Usain Bolt; the Fastest Man Who Has Ever Lived.’

Second question: how do we know he is the fastest man who has ever lived? We’re always being told that earlier generations of humans were physically stronger than modern ones, so how do we know they weren’t faster as well? Is this part of the great five-point presumption of our times:

Humans are superior to animals.

Technologically advanced cultures are superior to simple ones.

Modern humans are superior to ancient ones.

Men make better rulers than women.

Christians are superior to everybody else.

I had to add number four because I read some stuff about Emily Davison again today. I visited her grave once as part of a commissioned photo shoot, and first read about her then. That was nearly twenty years ago, and it sent shivers up my spine. It still does. Which is all getting off the point a bit, but never mind. It’s my blog.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Nobody Learns to Swim.

I used to be a good swimmer. Had no trouble getting the badges and certificates, and even battled home safely against a strongly ebbing tide off the Lancashire coast once. But I haven’t been swimming in a good many years, and I wondered tonight whether I might have forgotten how to do it.

How silly. I can’t have forgotten how to swim, because I never learned. That’s the point. ‘Learning’ to swim isn’t the same as learning to drive or play a musical instrument. Of course, we can learn techniques for swimming faster or more efficiently, but we don’t actually learn to swim; what we do is come to a state of confidence that if we just relax and move forward, we won’t sink. The human animal is buoyant. If we lie on our backs and spread out, we don’t even have to move forward. Relax and float. That’s all it comes down to.

I think that’s true of a lot of things in life, if only we can bring ourselves to accept it.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Three Way Connection.

I went out to put food on the bird table this morning. Within seconds there was a flutter of wings and a small bird took up a position on the dog rose a couple of feet away. A second one followed, and then a third. There was a brown robin with a bright orange chest, a brown and tan striped dunnock with a deep grey chest, and a black and yellow great tit, all forming a neat little triangle and watching me intently.

Isn’t it odd how an incident so seemingly insignificant can speak volumes of something you struggle to define? So why bother attempting definition. I expect it has something to do with connectedness and the beauty of small things. And I like triangles. That'll do.

Opposites Attract?

Been kept on the go today – from getting up ’til gone midnight – so no time for a proper post. Just a quick aside, however.

Have you noticed how you can have an awful lot in common with somebody, and yet not feel comfortable with them? And then you can find somebody so completely different, but really enjoy their company. It seems that compatibility has less to do with attitudes and interests, and far more with that elusive thing called chemistry.

But when you find somebody with both... What a rare treat.

Discuss.

(Or not, as you please.)

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Story Blog.

A few people have asked whether I plan to post any of my stories on the blog. I explained that there was the ‘First Rights’ issue to be considered, and also that they would take up an inordinate amount of space. I’ve had a re-think.

A fair number of them have been published already, so the Rights issue isn’t a problem; and I decided that I could take care of the space problem by simply having a second blog devoted entirely to the stories, with one story per page. So that’s what I started today. It’s now listed on my profile.

I haven’t decided yet which stories I’m going to put up there. Certain ones are still excluded - either because they are so far unpublished, they’ve been in extant publications for only a short time and it would be unfair to the publisher to reprint them yet, they’re still in Exclusive Rights contractual territory, or I simply don’t regard them highly enough. I also haven’t decided on the order of posting.

In the early days I’m sure I was influenced by my favourite ghost story writer, MR James. They were also mostly written in the first person because they had their starting point in some personal experience. As time went by I developed my own style, and the later ones read quite differently. And I wrote most of the later ones in third person because I know there is a prejudice against first person narratives. I don’t know yet whether I’ll alternate early and late stories, or post them in the order in which they were written. I would welcome suggestions on that one.

Of course, I’m sure that many people will ask ‘Why the hell does he think we want to read his stories?’ I well understand that, and I don’t. I’m just following a suggestion, so please yourselves.

Nature Diary.

The Cute:

I have a blue tit’s nest outside my kitchen window. I saw one of the little guys sitting on the nearby hedge this morning, with something that looked like a small caterpillar in his beak. I wondered why he wasn’t eating it, or taking it into the nest. Then his mate flew out of the box, joined him in the hedge, and fluttered her wings. He gave her the caterpillar. She returned to the nest; he flew away, presumably to fetch another one. It’s at such times that I realise the limits of my cynicism.

The Dramatic:

On the other side of the house, I have a bird feeding table outside my living room window. Two days ago I saw a hen pheasant fly onto it and begin feeding. An unfamiliar cock bird flew down, knocked the hen to the ground, and began having his way with her. There was an immediate flurry of activity as the hen’s mate ran up the lawn and attacked the intruder. A brief fight ensued before the bad guy took flight. Today, I noticed that Boss Cock has a limp. Must be tough for the men folk at this time of year.

The Spectacular:

I saw my first two swallows of the summer today. They were hunting insects at low level over my garden. There’s nothing to touch them for aerial mastery. Size for size, nothing that Lockheed or BAe could build would come close. The swallow is probably my favourite bird – except for my friendly robin who follows me around the garden wanting a private little pile of rolled oats.

The Hazardous:

Something is eating my raspberry plant, the one that’s taken three years to get going! I suspect the culprit is a young rabbit that’s taken to hanging around in my garden. I love rabbits to bits, and there’s no way I would harm him. It’s a joy to see him skipping around and trying to peer under the greenhouse door (which is exactly what Rabbit does at one point in my novel – who says life doesn’t imitate art?) At the same time, I was getting excited at the prospect of having fresh raspberries this year, and I tend to develop some fondness towards my plants, too. I decided that the best solution would be to move the plant into the greenhouse. It was a trickier operation than you might think, because plants often don’t take kindly to being moved. I made sure I dug well down to keep the roots in the original soil, and then struggled to get this damn great weight on two spades up the lawn and into the greenhouse. I spoke nicely to her through the whole thing. I explained the benefits of being moved, like not getting eaten and being warmer, for example. I hope she agreed. Time will tell.

Other news:

I might have an announcement to make soon about a second blog. I’m still mulling it over. Watch this space.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Clarification.

It occurs to me that I might be giving a false impression with my posts about the shortcomings, as I see them, of the publishing process. I might seem to be claiming that the only reason for my novel not being published lies entirely with those shortcomings. I need to correct that impression. As much as I hold to what I say, it might be that the novel simply won’t prove to be good enough, even if I do manage to get a publisher to look at it. I have no overblown opinion of the quality of my fiction. I am neither sufficiently egotistical nor sufficiently self-deprecating to make extravagant claims either way. My stories are very personal to me, they were written for me, and I like them. That’s what I meant by ‘a high opinion.’ That’s all.

I tried to get around to making a post about how we define quality in creative media, but my brain isn’t working well in that area today. Another time, maybe.

Enya’s song ‘Smaointe’ has just finished. I’ve been listening to that song for fifteen years, and it still does interesting things to my consciousness. It’s especially interesting when you consider that I’m not that big a fan of Enya. It’s that one song that really stands out, although I have an abiding fondness for ‘Caribbean Blue’ as well, but on a wholly different level.

And I still don’t know who Mela Ashton is.

An Emotional Day.

Today is the 65th anniversary of VE Day. I wasn’t born then, and I have long since lost my juvenile illusions about the perceived glories of war, as well as the jingoism that still simmers in the British mentality. And yet I feel emotional.

Imagine how the British people must have felt on May 8th, 1945.

Early May is a glorious time anyway – the colour green holds full sway over the gardens, the parks and the landscape. The birds are nesting and their song provides a soothing, melodious backdrop to the business of living. The sun is high and the days are lengthening. Life is burgeoning and summer is almost here.

Judging by newsreel footage of the time, May 1945 seems to have been a warm and sunny one. The people of Britain had just endured nearly six long years of horror. Bombings, rationing, the constant threat of invasion, and the fear of losing loved ones on a daily basis. And then, one beautiful day in May of all months, the announcement is made. The surrender has been signed and the war is finally over.

Truly imagine what that must have felt like, and I defy you not to feel emotional.

And I think it must have been similar for the whole of Europe, including the German people who had endured even heavier bombing than we had.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Oh, Well...

I’ve gone on in several previous posts about the priorities of the publishing industry and the problem with being a non commercially-minded writer. The experience continues.

I’ve had lots of dealings with publishers – mainstream ones as a photographer and small press ones as a writer – but I’ve never had any experience of literary agents before. I doubt I ever shall.

You know I’ve written a novel, right? And although I consider the writing itself to be the pinnacle of success for a writer, it would be nice to have it published. It takes quite a while to write a novel, and almost as long again to edit it several times until it’s how you want it. Having done that, it isn’t unnatural to want to communicate the whole thing to other people. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem a lot of point in placing it with the small press, where it will sit quietly in the corner of a website somewhere like a shy little puppy in an animal sanctuary. It wants to be on view, on a bookshelf, in a shop. But that means getting the mainstream publishers interested, and mainstream publishers don’t deal with first novels any more. They rely on agents to do that for them. The agents are the gatekeepers; and if you want to get published, the gatekeeper has to unlock the gate. And that’s where the problem lies.

I’ve spent ages this last two or three weeks trawling through the Literary Agents section of Preditors and Editors. They seem to be entirely consumed with the notion of literature as a commodity, rather than a creative resource. They tell you that when you start to plot a book, you need to very sure of the market at which it is aimed. I’ve never plotted anything in my life, and I’ve never aimed anything I’ve written at a market. I’m not that way inclined – never have been and never shall be. I write what wants to be written, and I write it as well as I can. That doesn’t count; it isn’t professional. Or, to put it another way, it isn’t the system by which commodities are produced. And they go on to tell you that you must be prepared to work with them to make the book ‘more marketable.’ Not more accomplished, you understand – more ‘marketable.’ That’s the name of the game. I quote: ‘Writing a book is the easy bit, it’s the selling of it to a publisher that’s difficult.’ In other words, it’s the literary agent who tolls the knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell. Oh, I forgot one. They also tell you how committed they are to advancing your career as an author. But suppose I don’t want to be a career author, which I don’t. Suppose I just have a book that I happen to think highly of and want published. Sorry. That’s not how we make our money.

So I have a problem. I don’t see how I could ever get on with a literary agent. We come from different planets; we speak different languages; we have a totally different understanding of life, to the extent that we are maybe even in diametrical opposition. But without them, my story about a journey will have to remain only my journey.

I just had another lettuce sandwich to cheer myself up.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Another Security Issue.

The President of the small Russian region of Kalmyia, one Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has claimed in a TV interview that he went aboard a spaceship and talked with aliens. A Russian MP has demanded an inquiry into the matter, not only because he questions whether Mr Ilyumzhinov is fit for office, but also because he is concerned that the aliens might have been made privy to Russian state secrets. The best that can be said of the MP is that this is what we in Britain call a ‘belt and braces’ approach.

One question does arise, however. If there really are beings from another world or an alternate dimension visiting us, it would be reasonable to suppose that they have vastly superior technology. I doubt they would have much to learn from us in that respect. Further, I fail to see any obvious reason why they would be interested in the concept of ‘state’ secrets. They might be a security threat, but on a galactic scale not an international one.

What strikes me as more likely is that they were negotiating for the spread of the McDonalds franchise in Russia. They might want to see the Russian kids too fat to fight as well. That just leaves the Chinese...

Mysteries.

Today’s three mysteries so far:

Why does the media give so much attention to what is little more than a sham of an election? Don’t they know the script was written years ago?

Why do I so dislike sneezing these days? Could it be a memory of the Bubonic Plague?

Who is Mela Ashton? Welcome anyway, Mela.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Aliens, Maybe?

Just when they’d told us there never had been any need to close the skies because the volcanic ash wasn’t that dangerous, the airspace over Scotland and Northern Ireland is closed again. Is there something going on up there they don’t want us to know about?

Lydia's Boundaries.

I want to say a few words about my friend Lydia. In the time-honoured tradition of protecting the innocent, I’m giving her a fictitious name. It’s the one I used when I made her a character in a story. She admonished me for it. ‘I’m definitely not a Lydia,’ she said, and I’m sure she isn’t. So Lydia will do nicely.

Lydia is an extraordinary person. She’s the sort of person you never really get to know, for she lives in her own delightful world and treats time as an illusion. This can be frustrating, because it sometimes takes her six months to reply to an e-mail. If you want to be acquainted with her, you accept her for what she is: a walking light bulb who radiates a glow wherever she goes. She is the one who introduced me to Khalil Gibran and the Tao, for which I shall be forever grateful.

She recently completed the eight years of general medical training with a posting to the hospital in Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis. She chose to rent a lochside cottage an hour’s cycle ride from work, just so that she could experience the peace of a remote location and see the stars in all their glory at night. She considered the two hours cycling, on top of the long day to which junior doctors are subjected, a small price to pay for something that mattered to her. She probably even enjoyed it, because it gave her the chance to stop and talk to the local sheep.

Animals trust her. During one of her weekends trekking alone across the wilder parts of the Outer Hebrides, a golden eagle flew down and landed on the ground in front of her. She found it thrilling, but not all that extraordinary. I asked her whether she was aware of the difficulty trained naturalists have in just getting to spot a golden eagle in the distance.

And then she got posted to Inverness and lived in halls for a while. Her irrepressible spirit was not to be shackled, and so she went for a walk along the riverbank between 12 midnight and 2am during one of the coldest winters we’ve had in decades. The temperature was -20C; that’s -4F. She wrote about how delighted she was to see the full moon reflected in the river, and even more delighted to see it reflected in her cup of peppermint tea from the flask she had thought to take with her. And, guess what? An otter came out of the river and walked alongside her in the snow. Otters are notoriously shy of humans, but not of Lydia. It wasn’t the first time an otter had come and greeted her.

The only time I knew her get into trouble was when she went walking alone in a remote part of the Himalayas. It was very cold, apparently; there was no hot water to bathe, little to eat, and the shelter was scanty. She became ill. Fortunately, she had an aunt living in Delhi a few hundred miles to the south, and so she made the long, arduous trip there by public transport. Her aunt was a practitioner in herbal medicine, and got her well again. But even Lydia realised that she had maybe overstepped her boundaries a little too far. She didn’t regret it, of course. People like Lydia don’t do regret.

And that’s one reason for making this post: the question of personal boundaries. We all have them – demarcation lines separating those areas in which we’re comfortable from those in which we’re not. Some people, like Lydia, have very far-reaching boundaries; others have much narrower ones. And there are those, like Lydia, who like to step across them and see if they can cope on the other side. Others are obsessively cautious and never overstep their boundaries. This is a matter of personal choice and nobody else’s business. It annoys me when people say you must push beyond your boundaries, as though it were some unwritten rule of life; and it annoys me equally when others say we must be cautious in all things, as though recklessness is a sin. There are no rules. Who is judging, except somebody who is merely our equal but thinks they know better? We have a right to be whatever we want to be in that respect. There’s no guilt to be had in either observing caution or throwing it to the wind. It’s only life, after all.

But I still dedicate this post to the lovely Lydia. What a privilege it is to be part of her circle.

Misunderstanding.

Like dear Roisin, I feel addicted to blogging, too. And I’ve been busy again today, so I thought I’d post a joke.

According to the incomparable Ken Doherty, this really happened. It helps if you can imagine Irish and Chinese accents.

There was a championship snooker match between Paddy, an Irishman, and Frankie, a Chinaman. Frankie had a ‘miss’ called against him, which he protested fiercely. Paddy supported it, of course, since it helped him to go on and win the frame. At the end of the frame, Frankie slammed his cue on the table and stormed off to the loo. On his way back he encountered Paddy coming the other way. He stopped him and wagged his finger.

‘Out of order, Paddy,’ he said. ‘Out of order!’

‘Don’t you come over tellin’ me what is and isn’t out of order,’ said Paddy, getting in a strop. ‘That was definitely a miss!’

‘No, no,’ said Frankie. ‘Sign on toilets. Out of Order.’

Monday, 3 May 2010

Priorities 2.

My Hotmail account home page offers a list of ‘news’ items for my delight and delectation. Isn’t that nice of them, taking all that trouble for their faithful account holders? Makes me feel special, wanted, appreciated. Makes me want to hug the MSN personnel and say ‘Glad to know you, guys. So happy I found you.’

There are five items on the list today. They are:

FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women

Celebs with shorter new hairstyles

Supercars for less than £10k

Top 10 most unlikely fanciable men

100 coolest cars ever.

That’s it. Celebrity, glamour, cars. The world according to Hotmail. 21st century cultural priorities. What am I doing here?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Priorities.

I read today that two retired US generals have joined forces to complain about the high level of obesity among American children. It seems their concern is not for the children’s health, which would be perfectly reasonable, but the fact that they’re too fat to fight. Obesity, they say, is a security issue.

My reaction was a bemused smile and a shake of the head. I wondered whether there’s more to the story than the brief report suggested. I wondered whether the two men in question are just typical hawkish rednecks and actually mean what they say, or whether there is some arcane agenda behind it. I considered whether it is yet another symptom of the rule-by-fear principle, a sign that the obsessive preoccupation with threat is achieving a level of tolerance redolent of McCarthyism. Or is the military’s need for canon fodder simply finding itself at odds with the commercial machine’s desire to feed kids rubbish until they burst? What a strange world.

In Praise of Lettuce.

I’ve only just realised how nice lettuce is. When I was a kid I thought it the most boring thing in the world. ‘Rabbit food,’ we called it. Well, rabbits aren’t so dumb then; they’ve got taste. You can have it with anything. I just had a lettuce sandwich, and it was fabulous. It’s crisp and fresh-tasting, and makes a crunching sound when you chew it. Lettuce, dear supremely interesting thing, where have you been all my life?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Three Women.

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the power of the ‘three women’ motif. I used it in a story: three beggar girls on a Dublin bridge, three women in a library, the triple-form banshee who needs a favour from her human charge, and the three Queens of Arthurian legend. It’s one of my favourites, which perhaps explains why it hasn’t been published yet (although it’s also too long for most small press publishers.)


It refers to the painting above - La Mort D’Arthur by James G Archer. When I first saw this picture I recognised the woman with the book, the King, and the scene. It resonated strongly with me, as though I were reviewing a scene from some point on my own cycle of life, death and rebirth. The story also quotes a short passage from Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. This resonates with me too, although I have yet to work out why.

Now put me into the barge, said the King. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all these ladies go from him. Comfort thyself, said the king...for I will into the Vale of Avalon to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.