Monday, 30 December 2013

Questionning the Superheroes.

I  was big into the DC superheroes when I was a kid, but my critical faculties were constantly troubled. There were three things about them I couldn’t understand:

1. Why was Batman deemed a superhero when he didn’t have any super powers? He was just a very good trapeze artist.

2. If Superman had all the powers contained in one person, why did people bother summoning the likes of Spiderman, The Flash and Green Lantern? Why not just call Superman for everything?

3. How could Superman fly? That was the big one. I could rationalise his excessive strength and invulnerability in terms of molecular density or something, but why did the fact that he came from another planet enable him to defy gravity? And what did he use for propulsion?

And there was something else that bothered me.  With all those superpowers – including invulnerability, no less – it seemed to me that Superman was no hero at all, since fighting earthly bad guys must have been a piece of cake to him. Oh yes, I know there was kryptonite, but how many villains had a piece of that lying around in a drawer?

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Being Chinese and Singular.

I was wondering today where my fascination with old China comes from. It’s been apparent ever since I became infatuated with Rupert Bear’s friend Tiger Lily when I was about seven. Maybe it’s because there’s something singular about both Chinese women and Chinese ghosts. And then there are those wide sleeves in which mandarins used to hide their hands (at least, Tiger Lily’s dad did.) I was always doing that as a kid. It seemed right and proper, somehow. And despite all the negative propaganda towards Communist China to which we in the west have been subjected over the past sixty years, I never gave up on them.

And then there’s this little story:

When I moved house in 1986, I decided to go to the local chip shop to get dinner, rather than cook after a hard day’s labour. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the locality, and I’d certainly never been into the chippy before. I walked in to find a perfectly traditional British chip shop, and yet I somehow felt I’d walked into old China. And do you know what? The proprietor came into the shop from the back, and he was Chinese. I didn’t know him from Confucius, and yet he said to me: ‘It’s been a long time since I last saw you.’ Isn’t that strange?

Anyway, you can watch a bunch of singular Chinese women dancing if you like. I must try searching ‘Chinese ghost stories’ in YouTube. Might be in for a good bit of post-midnight entertainment.

A Seemingly Pointless Exercise.

It’s been announced that memorial plaques are to be installed in honour of the victims of the Tay Bridge disaster, and I’m curious to know why.

This is not a churlish rant; I mean no disrespect, or even have any firm objection. It’s just that I don’t see the point. It seems to me that there are three grounds for installing memorials:

1. If it honours someone who undertook a course of action which improved the lives of others, especially if it left a legacy which will benefit future generations. Nelson Mandela is an obvious example.

2. If it relates to victims who have loved ones still living.

3. If it commemorates a major historical even such as the signing of the Magna Carta.

But the Tay Bridge disaster happened 134 years ago. It was an accident caused by a violent storm and a badly designed bridge. None of the victims did anything consciously to further a cause, there can’t be anybody living who remembers them, and it was simply a bad rail accident, the like of which is not uncommon when viewed globally. It might be claimed that the safety of rail bridges was improved as a result, but you can say that about any accident from which lessons are learned. So I still don’t understand why they’re doing it.

Trying to See the Invisible.

I woke up this morning with an overwhelming and dispiriting sense that all the things I’ve done in my life so far were essentially meaningless, and that memories are but two-dimensional representations of probable illusions.

The thought progressed from there, but I won’t bore you with the detail. Suffice it to say that in the end it came down to one thing: the matter of perception. It seems to me that perception is the realest thing we have in this physical existence. Maybe it’s the only thing that’s truly real. And yet it has no form; it can’t be seen, touched or measured; it’s one-dimensional, or maybe infinitely dimensional.

So where do we go from there? I don’t know, but I thought I’d jot it down to help wile away the time before lunch. Toasted cheese and pickle, I think. I need my one tomato for an illusory green salad later.

Expressionist Cinema.

I just watched the first half hour of FW Murnau's Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, in which…

… Jonathon Harker laughs maniacally for the whole first twenty minutes, just so we know that no silly vampires are going to scare him. It takes him several more minutes to suspect that the bite marks on his neck weren't caused by mosquitoes.

… He travels in a rather silly hat, but the Count upstages him by having not one but two even sillier hats. The first is especially silly, having a really huge feather so you think he’s a coach driver and not a Count.

… The wolves are played by hyenas.

Having tired of that, I found THIS! It’s far more realistic and features a priestess lookalike with added fingernails. Really. You think I’m kidding? It’s a bit woman-on-top, but that’s OK. That’s where priestesses are supposed to be, isn’t it? Why the hell people watch these insipid starlets the west produces when they could be watching Yang LiPing beats me.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

A Sprite in a Shop.

So, here’s a funny thing. I mentioned in a recent post that I have a prospective new story running through my head involving a water sprite. She’s the same character as appeared in an earlier story, and might briefly be described as a fully developed, long haired young woman who is very small in stature. In fact, the MC in that story mistakes her for a child when he first sees her at a distance.

Well, I was in a shop today, and what should come walking around the corner wearing a store assistant’s uniform but a fully developed, long haired young woman who was very small in stature. Her face suggested early twenties and she was normally formed in every respect, apart from the fact that she was definitely less than four feet tall. I’ve never seen the like before.

What does one do when confronted by such a vision, except stare and think: ‘Heavens! Here is my very water sprite, walking around the corner wearing a store assistant’s uniform. How odd.’ She noticed.

‘Is there something you’re looking for?’ she asked.

You have to think quickly in such a situation, so that’s what I did.

‘Yes. I was wondering whether you have original Listerine. All I can find are the flavoured ones that come in funny colours.’

A short conversation ensued, sadly without resolution on the Listerine issue, and I think I got away with it. But I still found it odd. When I was deep into writing fiction, stories would often find echoes in real life, but only after they were written. I’ve never had one that did it in advance before.

Eventually I decided she was no water sprite, on account of the fact that she had traces of acne around her face. Have you ever seen a water sprite with acne? Me neither.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Being Thirty Years too Late.

Ah, how my imagination does run when I’m perambulating the dark lanes of the Shire under the watchful eye of Orion.

‘Why are you sitting in here? You’re not envious of the Winter Queen in the kitchen, are you? I’ll bet you what you like that pristine honey blonde hair with its two hundred quid’s worth of styling isn’t really honey blonde. And who does she think she’s kidding with the all-white designer outfit? The wicked stepmother? Nah, all paint and plastic that one. She’s the sort who’d sell her granny just to pay the manicurist’s bill. And the way she was holding her glass of wine in that pretentious, just so sort of way… All show, I’d say. Oh, I admit she’s pretty enough. She even looks remarkably like an ex of mine, which was the only thing that attracted my attention in the first place. But it’s a very ordinary sort of prettiness. No character. Definitely nothing to be envious of.’

Youth is wasted on the young, and experience avails the more mature person less and less as the years advance. What a perverse sliding scale we humans do have to contend with. Who the bloody hell designed this place?

*  *  *

I thought I was seeing a water sprite today. More on that later.

Late and Losing the Plot.

Do you know what my ex-wife said to me when I proposed to her?

‘If you hadn’t asked me soon, I think I would have gone mad.’

Haha! That was my next seven years sorted out!

She had a rock band, you know. I did the roadie duties, but I also chose the name: Marley’s Ghost. That’s what they were called, and my then-wife wrote all the songs. They got some interest from EMI, but it never came to a recording contract.

After we split up she started a business making and selling embroidery kits, and she wrote several books on the subject – using my name. She also took up with an archaeologist and laid claim to our pet rabbit, Beaumont (whose name was chosen by me, I might add.) She always was a bit strange.

Right now I’m being driven crazy by the roaring of the wind and the clattering of the rain. Does it show?

Wind and Ambivalence.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I once crossed the Atlantic in a small frigate while a force 11 storm was raging. You’d think it would be a little frightening, wouldn’t you, pacing a deck that was pitching, yawing and rolling, and being over-towered by a 40ft high swell topping the deep ocean? It wasn’t; all I felt was exhilaration. And yet sitting in this house with a wind gusting to maybe 40mph outside, I feel threatened.

I think the reason is that when you’re out and about in a storm, the wind is blowing past you; it’s ignoring your presence and going about its own business; it’s almost like a fellow passenger on the road of life. When you’re shut in a house, however, the wind is all around you, laying siege to your castle. It’s become the enemy at the gates.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Time, Wind and Melancholy.

For much of the walk tonight I found myself remembering with great vividness a dog I had back in the 80s, a beautiful Border Collie who died of a malignant tumour at age 4½. It was so vivid that I sensed again how much I’d loved her, and felt again the grief at her leaving, and was touched again by the sting of guilt for all the times I’d scolded her, perhaps unfairly. Why would all that come back so strongly after twenty nine years?

This happens to me occasionally, and I wonder whether time, in all its mystery, sometimes carries us across a shaft connecting us with an earlier episode, so we hear the echoes of what happened then, and smell the smells, and sense the senses. And I wonder whether there’s some reason why we need to be reminded.

*  *  *

The wind was beginning to rise while I was out. We’re promised another storm through tonight and tomorrow, the third this month. Three deaths were attributed to the one that hit us on Monday, and then there are the people who’ve been flooded out and others who have spent Christmas without power. It’s unusual to get three storm systems in one month, and the howls of the current one are circling the house and filling the chimney cavities as I type. I find the sound both mournful and menacing these days.

The Question of Christmas.

I find myself wondering more than ever this year why we do Christmas. Why do we voluntarily engage with all its angles, overtones, undertones, trouble and expense? Indeed, is it voluntary or do we just get pulled along with the tradition because, to most people, it would be unthinkable not to? Is the apparent atmosphere real, or has it been artificially manufactured through persistent use going back to the dawn of humanity?

At its root, it obviously isn’t about Christianity. That’s just the most recent façade that’s been laid upon it. The midwinter festival goes back through time immeasurable.

So how did it start? Was it about the worship of gods and ancestors, the need to connect with the natural order, the re-affirmation of familial and group bonding – or maybe all of these things or something else entirely? We’ll never know, of course, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But it does raise the question of whether we should be doing things when we don’t really know why we’re doing them. Is it just a question of going with the flow, fitting in with the culture, and is that right? Maybe it is.

The French Connection.

I’m going through one of my Francophile phases again. I do, you know, every so often. This time it’s that damn Sophie Neveu who’s to blame – she and her burgundy hair!

(I had a thought, by the way. Dan Brown is American, right? So could it be that ‘burgundy’ is what we Brits call ‘auburn?’ That would explain a lot. I’d be happy to have the view of an American on the subject.)

Anyway, the pertinent fact of the matter is this: in all my life, I only ever met one French woman. She came from somewhere in the Languedoc and spoke English very prettily. By a strange quirk of fate, however, I met plenty of French men. I even drank absinthe with several of them in a seedy hotel room one night, then drove home in a haze of liquid aniseed.

If that isn’t an example of karmic re-balancing, I don’t know what is.

The Amateur Writer at Christmas.

I have a new story forming in my head, but I have a problem with it. It features a water sprite who was the star of one of my earlier stories. On that occasion she got a bit miffed with the MC, but eventually forgave him and saved him from a serious watery predicament.

This time is different. This time she’s miffed enough to be homicidal, and the problem is this. She’s shown me the mysterious circumstances under which the first two men died, but she’s holding back on how the third one is going to cop it. I got impatient and decided to work it out for myself, but it was hopeless. You don’t get impatient with water sprites, you see; you wait until they’re ready to tell you. That’s how it works.

*  *  *

What a thing to be thinking of at Christmas. I remember my childhood, when my attention could be held for quite some time by the tableau my mother used to set out under the Christmas tree on a bed of cotton wool: a cottage, a Santa and sleigh, a few pine trees and a couple of reindeer. The first thing I wanted to do as soon as darkness fell was switch off the room lights and see the snowy tableau lit only by the lights on the Christmas tree. It’s my earliest recollection of seeing magic in the combination of light and form.

And then the water sprites came along. I grew out of God and Santa Claus, and into the denizens of alternate dimensions. That’s finding reality, that is. That’s growing up.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Being Unseasonal.

Few people with an eye for a good film would disagree that Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was pretty dire. One scene alone will suffice to illustrate the point:

Our hero, Robin of Sherwood (who speaks with an American accent) stops for a rest on his way from Dover to Nottingham. And where does he take his ease? Sitting on the modern remains of Hadrian’s Wall, which is rather a long way away from the route between Dover and Nottingham. It wouldn’t have damaged the credibility of the film much further if he’d had a line in which he blamed ‘this damn piece-o-shit satnav’ for getting him lost.

There is, however, one memorable line spoken by the incomparable Alan Rickman, playing the dastardly Sherriff rather splendidly:

Cancel Christmas!

I think somebody took him at his word this year.

Will that do for a cheery Christmas Day post? You could always take a look at Madeline’s handsome cat if you want something better.

Another First.

The grim and grimy world of industrial Britain into which I was born and in which I spent the first fourteen years of my life (that was when we moved away from the shadow of a coal slag heap) had a fairly strict code of understanding with regard to alcoholic drink. Men drank beer and whisky; women drank gin, Babycham, and brandy mixed with other things to make it less posh. (It’s part of what gave rise to the expression ‘It’s grim up north,’ but it was a comfortingly simple world back then.)

Wine was never mentioned. Wine was fit only for softies, perverts and foreigners. ‘If God had meant me to drink wine, he’d have made me a Frenchman,’ claimed the coal miners as they marched homeward every morning with their picks and Davy lamps, giving rousing renditions of On Ilkley Moor Bah’t ‘At and Cwm Rhondda (or Stoke City, Stoke City, We’ll Support You Evermore sung to the same tune.)

I think I was in my twenties when I first drank wine.

Horrid stuff.

Maiden’s water.

Mine’s a pint.

Sorted.

I’ve never been a wine drinker, except with one proviso: I like fortified wines. I drank sherry as a kid, then moved onto port when I got older. Today I had my first taste of Madeira. I had trouble distinguishing it from port, except to suggest, perhaps, that it was a little more ‘earthy.’ But I liked it, and it was my fourth ‘first’ this month, after the badger in the garden and the literary stuff.

Which is the point of the post. I took a long time to get there, didn’t I?

I’ve had a difficult Christmas Eve. Indulgence is requested.

On Oxford and its Comma.

We had pears, plums, peaches, and pineapples.

In case you don’t know, the final comma in that sentence is known as an Oxford comma. I’m told that American and Canadian school kids are taught that it is correct, whereas British school kids are taught that it isn’t. It was a bone of contention once between me and a Canadian editor. She wanted to add a bagful of Oxford commas to my manuscript, and I got a bit uppity about it.

Eventually I took the advice of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which recommends that it be used if its omission would prejudice the immediate understanding of what follows, but not if it doesn’t. That seemed a constructive solution to me, so that’s what I generally do.

When I looked up that quotation from A Christmas Carol earlier, however, I noticed that Dickens, a 19th century British writer, used the Oxford comma, whereas I’ve been noticing for the past couple of weeks that Dan Brown, a modern American author, doesn’t. At least, not in The Da Vinci Code he doesn’t.

I find that really rather interesting, although I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Honing the Delusion.

I was just reading through the BBC news text pages and came across a short report on the annual Delusional Delight – the Christmas pilgrimage of the faithful to Bethlehem.

I could go on, couldn’t I? I could write a post about the fact that all credible evidence points overwhelmingly to the near-certain conclusion that the whole nativity story is a complete fabrication. I could rant on about how expressions of The Nativity – from school plays to tableaux in public places – disturb me, since they’re OK as long as they’re viewed as a pleasant little cultural tradition, but too often they’re not. Instead, we expose generation after generation of children to an icon which is designed to condition generation after generation of supposedly grown up people to the notion that this stuff really happened.

But let’s not be a party pooper.

I already was? Oh. Sorry.

Still, back to the beginning. The news report concluded that ‘The Church of the Nativity sits on the spot where the Bible says Jesus was born.’ You mean the Bible is that specific? Wow! Must read it again. Or maybe somebody could point me to the chapter and verse where it says Baby Jesus was born in a cow shed at the intersection of Main Street and King Herod Avenue, south west quadrant. That will save me rummaging through my boxes of old books. Thank you.

A Short Study in Business.

I rarely feel inclined to quote Charles Dickens, but this one I like. It’s no self-consciously clever sound bite which over-simplifies a deep and complex theme, as so many of them do. It is, to my mind, a self-evident truth nicely stated.

The day is appropriate, since it comes from the visit of Marley’s ghost to Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. And I think the message is even more lost on today’s people of business than it was in Dickens’s day.

‘But you were always a good man of business,’ faltered Scrooge.

‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’  

The Pot Calling the Kettle.

I gather the British tycoon Richard Branson has advised people to boycott Uganda over its new draconian anti-gay laws. I’m inclined to agree (although I suspect that Uganda’s action is primarily intended to be salutary rather than punitive, which is a separate argument and of little comfort to gays.)

My problem here is with the mouth out of which the advice is coming. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Branson and his greedy ilk to be prime architects of the deleterious social changes which have taken place in Britain over the past thirty years. And so, while I agree with boycotting Uganda, I would also advise that we boycott all things Virgin.

Monday, 23 December 2013

A Final Word.

I did it. I finished The Da Vinci Code. I do mostly – finish what I start, that is. So, a final word:

I’ve moaned all my moans about sloppy writing and improbable detail, but there’s one more moan to come.

Sophie has discovered the grandmother and brother she thought had both been killed in a car crash when she was young. The brother comes dashing across the lawn, and this is how Brown describes the meeting:

‘Sophie?’

Through her tears, Sophie nodded, standing. She did not know the young man’s face, but as they embraced, she could feel the power of the blood coursing through his veins… the blood she now understood they shared.

Do I need to expound? I hope not. Brown can hide in a corner while we groan through the sloppy prose and lack of credibility in the details, but he should do penance for this piece of prime Roquefort. He should. He must be punished for making me cringe so hard that I even lost the lovely Sophie for a second in the fog of disbelief. I suggest he gives all royalties from the book to a charity of my choosing. My e-mail address is on the blog.

Having said which, the well structured plot - for which I have already given him credit - is brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Apart, that is, from one thing:

No Sophie. While Langdon is finally discovering the secret whereabouts of the Holy Grail in France, Sophie is still hugging her brother in Scotland. That isn’t right. Sophie has been the more powerful of the two ever since she instructed Langdon to follow her instructions because he was in danger. And that’s how it’s supposed to be, because the book is all about re-establishing the lost power of the feminine. So why does the man and the man alone finish the story? A mixed message, I think. Not right.

And one more thing that’s been troubling me ever since Sophie’s first appearance. What colour is burgundy hair exactly? The colour of red wine? Does such a colour exist in nature, or are we to believe that Sophie, for all her languid Gallic chic, dyes her hair dark red?

Well, she and Langdon have a date to meet in Florence for a week of wicked frolics in a month’s time, so I expect he’ll get to discover what colour her hair really is then.

The End.

Obstacles and Mysteries.

I had one of those days in Ashbourne today, one of those days on which life expresses her disapproval of me by placing human obstacles in my path at every turn.

There was the couple I followed out of the health food shop who stopped and blocked the doorway as soon as they’d crossed the threshold.

Excuse me.

Then there was the woman who pulled a trolley off the stack at the supermarket, but stopped half way through to fiddle in her bag. I waited; I did.

Excuse me. Could I get one, too?

Then there were the two separate women, each regarding a display on opposite sides of the aisle. One held her trolley out this way, while the other held hers out that way. Steeplechase style.

Excuse me. Are you trying to erect a model of the Thames Barrier, or what?

No, I didn’t say that. I would have done once, but I’ve mellowed. I must have encountered at least six of these human chicanes during the two hours I was in the town. It was today’s trend.

Nil desperandum; I got my reward; I met Sophie in the library. How did I know it was Sophie? She was wearing a hat with ‘Sophie’ written on the front, and I have no idea why. Being attracted to both mysteries and tangents, I offered a simple greeting:

‘You must be Sophie.’

‘Yes.’

(Never fails.)

‘Did you know your name comes from the Greek for wisdom?’

‘Somebody else told me that.’

(Damn. I do so like being the first.)

‘I gather you sing folk music at events.’

Third time lucky; the engine roared and Sophie was away. We talked about folk music and spirituality, until she suddenly rushed off without warning. And I have no idea why.

Better Late than Never.

I bought Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk in the early 80s, two or three years after it was released, and listened to it countless times. And yet do you know what? I just listened to the title track on YouTube and ‘heard’ it for the first time. It’s a lot better than I remember it.

I’m not going to post the YouTube link because I think you can do too much of that sort of thing. I just need to pose the question to myself:

Why has it taken me this long to catch up?

By the way, I installed the latest update to Adobe flash player this morning and the improvement in sound quality quite surprised me. So there’s a bouquet instead of a brickbat for a change. Appreciate.

Another Recollection for the Dark Nights.

This song must surely have one of the best intros and finales of anything in the pop spectrum. I gather it was based on a real life relationship crisis, presumably between Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Hence the line:

Break the silence
Damn the dark, damn the light

Nice line.

It takes me back a bit, of course. It was the beginning of the photography years. It saw the disintegration of a marriage and the start of a new, ultimately disastrous relationship. It accompanied a move to Northumberland, probably the wildest part of England. It settled nicely each side of a shift from a safe, organised, left brain career into a more Bohemian, insecure, but infinitely more enjoyable right brain one. And the finale, which starts at 3.05, was the theme tune to the BBC’s coverage of Formula 1 motor racing. It wasn’t unusual for me to have it playing in the car very loud while I pretended to be Ayrton Senna. Very irresponsible, I know, but I was careful with my choice of roads so there were no wrecks and nobody drownded.

And just as a significant afterthought, the girl kneeling in the rain is Zoe to a tee. She’s left my orbit now and is presumably heading for the further reaches of the solar system. She was the last of my gems to take flight this year, about which more on New Years Eve maybe. Or maybe not. It’s bad enough having your treasure chest emptied, without talking about it as well.

And do you know what really pisses me off? Google won’t let you comment on YouTube tracks now until you’ve answered their impertinent questions, which I decline to do. No more pearls of wisdom from me to illuminate the unhallowed halls of YouTube.

Anyway, here’s the Fleetwood Mac track.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Literal and Literary Complications.

I want a word. What is the non gender-specific equivalent of a fraternity or sorority?

Whatever it is, I do believe that those who suffer neuroses should count themselves part of such a body, albeit an undefined and unregulated one. For who else would truly understand such a fear of the irrational - and the fact that the light of reason offers no antidote – than another who is a victim of the same condition?

I was thinking tonight that people with eating disorders must find it a source of anxiety to have a house guest – a guest who is not only unlikely to understand the nature of the affliction, but probably doesn’t even know about it. Such a person would be ignorant of the house rules that must accompany such a state of mind, and therefore pose a perceived potential threat of some magnitude to the sufferer. He or she would be a loose canon forever threatening to demolish the machinery of control.

Or maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe I’ve become entranced by the complex machinations of The Da Vinci Code, and am consequently seeing complications where none exist.

*  *  *

On which note, I’ve nearly finished the book. The machinations are, indeed, complex and well thought out. The plot has been painstakingly constructed with some care, I have to admit.

The problem (apart from the sloppy writing) is in the detail, which presents an aware and discerning reader with frequent, irritating examples of dubious credibility. Would a competent secretary, for example, take around fifteen minutes to make two cups of instant coffee? Would she do so in a microwave? Would the ‘ping’ of the microwave be heard at the beginning of the process, rather than the end? And, being British, would she ask ‘cream and sugar?’ In all my life I’ve never heard anyone use that phrase, except in American productions. We always ask ‘milk and sugar?’

That sort of thing.

One up on Ebeneezer's Hearth.

These are unhappy times. What doesn’t help is the knowledge that being unhappy isn’t just about the causes, real though they might be, but at least as much about how we react to them. That’s what I’ve always had trouble controlling. Keen feelings are like fire: a good servant, but a bad master.

*  *  *

Still, I did have at least one constructive thought over the past three days. Take a look at one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Idylls of the King:

 
Isn’t it interesting that we consider wrecked old buildings to be more romantic than pristine new ones? If only we could apply the same perception to people.

*  *  *

Time to see whether the newly laid fire is burning up like a good servant should, and then I’ll re-heat some pea and potato soup for dinner. Home made pea and potato soup is a cheap meal, but fortunately I like it. It’s thick and well laced with pepper and herbs. And it beats gruel.  

Friday, 20 December 2013

Religion and Monkeys.

All religions are belief systems, and people have every right to their beliefs. What they don’t have any right to do is become so degraded by the darkness of dogmatic certainty that they believe themselves entitled to force others to think and act in accordance with it.

Tonight’s walk post went out of the window. Tonight’s Da Vinci Code post went out of the window. And all other seeds of potential posts fell on stony ground.

That’s because I feel rattled by several things, not least the fact that I find myself dispirited by the continued stupidity of the human monkey carrying some grotesque image of God on his back and running amok.

I don’t know what God is, or whether it even exists, and I don’t know what truths might be contained in any religion. But neither does anybody else, especially the monkey.

That’s why this little post survived. It had to find release somewhere.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Second that Never Arrives.

When I was a kid, Christmas came in three phases. First there was the anticipation, which became most intense on Christmas Eve. Then there was the climax, which lasted from waking up on Christmas morning until the end of the Christmas meal at lunchtime. Finally, there was the sense of anticlimax, which lasted roughly until December 27th when the seeds of anticipation were sown again, ready to germinate approximately 363 days later. And the interesting thing about such a process is that, while the climactic stage contained the greatest pleasure, it was always the first phase which contained the magic.

And so it has always been for me with everything. I’m not the sort who can finish a meal, feel satisfied, and exclaim ‘Ah, that’s better.’ No. The end of a meal is always the beginning of the anticlimax. There was pleasure in the eating, but the magic was in the anticipation. And they’re both gone anyway, so what is there to feel satisfied about?

Do you realise what that means for me and others like me? Because the perception and pursuit of magic is of such paramount importance to us, we find it unsatisfying to live in the present. We spend our lives constantly living for the next second, but when the next second arrives, the magic disappears. The real next second never comes.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Spotting the Difference.

I met a little dog in Ashbourne today – a Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy with a rotund profile and a puggish sort of face. His male human companion had his back to me, but the puppy wanted to make friends and was very cute.

I saw him again later in the pet shop, and this time he was with both human companions: one male and one female, presumably husband and wife. I got a good look at them the second time, and, by an odd coincidence, they were both rotund in profile too. They also both had puggish faces. And yet for some reason which I couldn’t quite discern, they weren’t even remotely cute.

Pronunciation by Rank.

Guildford (a town in Surrey, England) is an interesting name. Most English peasants pronounce it ‘Gilford.’ East London peasants, however, pronounce it Giwford. That’s because East London peasants have a curious habit of confusing ‘l’ with ‘w.’ (I think it has something to do with the effect of jellied eels on the anterior palate.) Posh folks, on the other hand, manage to insert the ‘d’ without actually sounding it. It’s very clever, and precisely what sets them apart from peasants.

My Best Bear at Christmas.

Mel reminded me tonight that it’s only a week to Christmas Eve. That’s frightening; another year nearly gone already.

Here we are, however, so I suppose it’s time I trotted out my perennial Christmas post of the Rupert Bear Frog Song video. It’s my second favourite Christmas vid after A Fairytale of New York.

And I’ve mentioned often enough that Rupert was my much-loved Christmas companion as a kid, so it’s apposite that I should have first watched this video in a town centre pub one lunchtime at Christmas, 1984. My life was about to undergo probably the biggest of all its many changes, and it was nice to have dear Rupert in the van as herald.

And just in case you think it proves what a rabid old sentimentalist I am, I’d like to point out that my favourite character in the film is the Victor Meldrew owl.

(I’m becoming quite the Victor Meldrew myself these days. My latest is ‘Pink and bottle green together? I don’t bloody believe it!’)

Maintaining the Principle.

Google is suggesting that I make extra money over the holiday by carrying ads on my blog. Well, I said from the outset that I would never demean my blog by carrying adverts, and so I won’t. There are those, like Google, who believe that commerce is king, and there are others, like me, who view it as a grubby opportunist determined to keep the masses eating crumbs while it grabs all the caviar and cream cakes for itself. I see this as a matter of standards, but maybe it’s just a matter of how you’re made. Either way, definitely no ads.

By an odd coincidence, I was flicking through the TV channels tonight and caught the end of the 1951 Alistair Sim film, Scrooge. Some claim that it’s the best version of A Christmas Carol ever made, and it’s certainly my favourite. But then, Alistair Sim has always been one of my favourite actors, so tonight I searched out a biography of him.

I learned that he once sued a baked beans manufacturer for having another actor mimic his voice in a TV ad. He said it misrepresented him because he would never ‘prostitute his art’ to advertise anything. He won the case, and I’m glad he did.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Conspiracy and Circumspection.

I’m one of those who applaud Edward Snowden’s sacrifice. The contents of his open letter to Brazil largely accord with my own views on the matter.

It does, however, raise a tangential point. As far as I can see, Snowden has made no extravagant claims; he has stuck to the single, demonstrable matter of America’s NSA conducting a policy of intruding illegally and unreasonably into the lives of private citizens around the world. There will be others, of course, who will use it as fuel for a general conspiracy theory mindset.

In my opinion, conspiracy theory has its place, but only so far. It’s like religion: it probably contains some truth, and so is worth being aware of and even investigated where possible. I certainly don’t advocate that we should ignore it altogether.

The problem is that most of it is definitively unprovable. As with religion, it amounts to a belief system, so why take a road that takes you into a tangled forest of fallacious certainty? When you do that, it just produces more pointless preaching to rival that foisted on us by religious extremists and rabidly vocal atheists.

Altered States.

The big advantage of mixing alcohol with music is that it’s the next best thing to shamanic practice.

Meanwhile, my Feedjit appears to have packed up, but not before showing me a tantalising visit from Sydney, New South Wales. Maybe dear old Feedjit is dreaming of ghosts in red cheomsangs, as I occasionally do.

Dan and Padding.

Robert and Sophie are sitting beside one another in the cab of a truck. They’re at the bottom of a drive leading to a chateau, and Robert has to lean over her to speak into the intercom that will get the gates open. Quote:

Robert smelled Sophie’s perfume and realised how close they were.

Now, when you’re sprawled across the form of an attractive 32-year-old woman who has unstyled burgundy hair framing the warmth of her face, you don’t need to smell her perfume to realise how close she is, do you?

This is typical of what I gather is a favoured ploy among best selling authors and their publishers who want to make lots of money out of them. Padding – puerile and pointless words stuffed into the narrative at every opportunity so as to increase the distance from the front cover to the back. This is so that the buying public will think they’re getting a lot of story, when what they’re actually getting is relatively little story inflated with a load of hot air. There’s a lot of it in The Da Vinci Code.

Somebody who read my story The Gift Horse said:

‘It’s a good story, well written, but it isn’t long enough to be a novel.’

‘I know. It’s a novella.’

‘Well, why don’t you pad it out to twice the length, then it will be worth considering for publication?’

‘Because then it wouldn’t be well written, would it?’

There is no such thing as quality literature. There are books that sell and books that don’t
 ~ An ex-Prime Minister, now late.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Rationalising the Fitful Fever.

You know, I and people like me don’t have homes. We’re not supposed to. What we have are learning environments, some of which are comfortable and some of which aren’t.

The problem with those that are comfortable is that they begin to feel like home, and that’s when the wheels of fortune start turning and the whispering in the wire adopts an insistent tone:

‘Hear those wheels? That's the discomfort generator going to work. You’re not on this earth to be comfortable, you know. You’re here to learn.’

Learn what? Do they have a job for me somewhere down the line? Is that it? Who are ‘they?’ Some consortium of gods, angels, demons and my higher consciousness, all sitting around a three dimensional chess board? And who is the whisperer?

It all sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? I’m inclined to agree, and yet I’m seriously beginning to wonder. It fits nicely with my history to date. It fits nicely with the history of a few other people I know, too.

 *  *  *

So, what should I do in the meantime? Should I make that post about the Grail quest? I like that one; it never gets to the bottom line. Or should I start the new story that's forming in what passes for a mind - the one about the two men drowned in mysterious circumstances and the third one awaiting his fate?

I don't suppose I'll do either. I expect I'll reach for some alcohol and music to drown out the sound of turning wheels.

Shame.

Every morning I read any blog posts which I wrote late the previous night (or earlier the same day to be precise.) Sometimes I find a disaster area of confused syntax, irregular punctuation, spelling errors, absent words, and mismatched tenses.

And so I wonder: ‘How many people read this before I had chance to edit the damn thing?’

Does it matter? Should I care? Probably not, but there aren’t many things I do passably well.

On Bodies and Books.

My body is revolting today, rather than being merely repellent as it usually is. I’m not sure what it’s revolting against, but it’s doing a damn good line in stiffness and twingeing on an almost global scale.

It could have something to do with sleep. I’ve mentioned before that I've been waking up between five and six hours after going to bed almost every day since the fatigue thing started – irrespective of what time I go to bed – where I always used to function happily on about 7½. Do you realise what that means? It means I’m missing two hours a day; that's two whole nights of sleep a week. Wouldn’t you revolt?

In other news:

I don’t want to keep ranting on about the lamentable literary standard of The Da Vinci Code, but honestly! Let’s sum it up:

If you like your literature to be elegant, assured, mature, and to credit the reader with sufficient intelligence to preclude the need to have a character run through the salient points of the plot a second time because the writer doesn’t trust you to have got it the first time round…

Or…

If you like your literature to be original and idiosyncratic, and to encourage a radical re-assessment of everything you thought you knew about such basics as life, the nature of reality and the semantics of communication…

… don’t read The Da Vinci Code. It’ll drive you mad.

I intend to finish this book because I’m congenitally inclined to finish whatever I start, but it’s getting harder by the day.

I wonder whether that’s what my body is revolting against.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Venus in Transit.


And the wind is fallen still now
And the world is faded grey
Since the spark that set it searing
Is decamped and flown away

There stands another one that was written by the celebrated game bird which was on special offer for two weeks running.

I think I should write crossword puzzles instead.

The Fascination of Fire.

Every evening I lay the fire in the grate with a firelighter, some kindling and a topping of coal. I light it and leave it, then go back every so often to see how it’s doing. Once I see that the coal has caught and is burning nicely, I know I can leave it for half an hour or so before adding more fuel.

Only I don’t. That’s the point at which it becomes hypnotic and I can’t tear myself away. I stand and watch it for ages, fascinated by all that sinuous, searing energy striving ever upwards.

Water falls naturally to rest; fire rises naturally to oblivion.

Which neat little sound byte leads me neatly into the mystery of why, me being a fire sign astrologically, a disproportionate number of the women with whom I’ve had close relationships have been water signs. At least, it would if I felt so inclined. But I don’t.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Spectre of Lid Lane.

The night was mild, breezy and damp. Pools of water lying in potholes on the lane reflected the torchlight into the trees and hedgerows, where their images flitted uncertainly around the bare branches like lost ghosts. I’ve always found the sight a little eerie, but it was nothing compared with what tonight’s perambulation had in store.

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a small wood bordering the lane a little way down from my house, and in the wood is a grave which is close to its boundary with the road. I walk past it every night, and every night is uneventful. Until this night.

As I passed the spot, I heard a muffled thump. It spooked me a bit because it didn’t sound like any sort of a thump that has a natural cause. It sounded like somebody had dropped something, or maybe stepped on something that had moved or fallen over. I shone the torch in that direction. Nothing, as expected, so I continued on my way.

Nevertheless, I didn’t feel settled and content in the belief that I was alone. I turned and shone the torch back along the lane. Nothing, as before, so I walked on.

I repeated the exercise twice more, still feeling a sense that the dark, impassive trees were hiding something. I was wrong, of course; there was only darkness, a host of impassive trees, and a potholed tarmac road in my wake. Once more would satisfy me, so once more I turned and shone the torch.

I had no time to react. The figure that came running at unnatural speed towards me was as close as it was terrifying. A misty white something, roughly the size and shape of a person, but not clear enough to have me fear the assault of a human attacker. This thing wasn’t human; that much was certain, instantly. The edges of this spectre shimmered and flapped like the tattered remains of old fabric.  I hardly had time to draw a breath of panic before it was on me. I think I closed my eyes just before I felt the thrill of jagged, icy coldness shudder through my frame. And yet there I stood, eyes wide open, staring at a dark and empty road in both directions.

*  *  *

It’s ages since I wrote anything spooky, so I thought I’d have a go, just to see whether I could still do it. Only the muffled thump actually happened. Did it have you going for a second? I hope so, though I doubt it.

What I actually saw tonight were the latest additions to the Shire Christmas lights display. There was a Christmas tree outside the pub with winking lights, and Mr C’s customary attempt to compete with the Blackpool illuminations. Interestingly enough, Mr C’s land is almost opposite the cottage where the man who is now buried in the wood used to live.

And the smaller tree branches in Mill Lane waved to me in the wind, and the air whispered loudly in that language which only the animals and the little folk understand.

Films for the Songs.

I just watched the official video to the song Little Lies from Fleetwood Mac’s album Tango in the Night. To be more accurate, I managed about 90 seconds before I threw it out for the gulls to eat. It isn’t fit for human consumption.

For a start, the dream boy looks like a wannabee yuppie who hasn’t made it off the ground floor yet. And then there’s a shot of Christine McVie sitting in a field and accompanying herself on the piano – only her fingers aren’t moving. And it’s set in a landscape of barns in Minnesota or somewhere. God alone knows what barns in Minnesota have to do with anything.

Which is a pity, you know? This song was a favourite of mine back in the day, and I hate to see it compromised by a film maker who’s being paid lots of money just to show us that he has no idea what the song is about.

Eventually I found the version with only the album cover to delight the eye. It’s a nice picture. See below.

Still, soon be Christmas, and then we can delight again in all those Christmas Songs from Down the Years. Oh joy!

There’ll be smart young things throwing cotton wool snowballs at each other, shameless women frolicking in fur-trimmed red bikinis, Dachshunds wearing cardboard antlers, and – hopefully – Shane McGowan looking like a leprechaun who headbutted the hardest stone in the fairy ring. And Kirsty MacColl. Hopefully.

Anyway, here’s Little Lies accompanied by no yuppies, women with frozen fingers, or barns in Minnesota. Just a nice picture.


Friday, 13 December 2013

Glancing at the Road Not Travelled.

Every night this week, at least one new set of Christmas lights has appeared somewhere on JJ’s perambulation route. There were three tonight, including one at a bungalow in Mill Lane.

It has a conservatory on the side, the whole interior perimeter of which was hung with a run of small lights which rose and fell in different colours. The result was an ebb and flow of subdued illumination, passing from red to blue to green and back again, each change being punctuated by the soft touch of shallow darkness.

I watched it for some time, and thought what a splendid place it would be in which to engage in meaningful conversation with a special person late into the night, the sort of special person who makes your skin tingle in waves.

Imagination took flight, and the perception of a now empty space fell passing sad.

The Blind Leading...

In order to re-acquaint myself with the quotation from Macbeth which I paraphrased in the previous post, I sought out some Shakespeare commentary sites. One ran the quotation as:

I am settled, and bend up.
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.

If somebody’s basic comprehension of English is that bad, what the hell are they doing writing a Shakespeare commentary site?

Missing the Boat as Usual.

For several months now, the cheap shop in Uttoxeter has had packs of four specialist coffees at less than half the price they are in the supermarkets. I thought I might get one as a Christmas treat, but didn’t because:

a) My income doesn’t really stretch to treats.

b) I’m blessed with an inner conviction that I don’t deserve them.

c) Christmas for me is more a thing to be dreaded than celebrated.

I was in there yesterday, and must have been in an unusually dangerous mood because I changed my mind. I sought out the appropriate shelf, each corporal agent settled and bent up to the frightening prospect of spending £1.99 on something that is not only a treat, but isn't even alcoholic.

They’d all gone. ’Tis ever the way.

Another Ghost in the Machine.

I was watching a DVD on the computer tonight – a creepy ghost story called The Awakening. Just as it reached a particularly creepy bit, the film jumped out of full screen mode entirely of its own volition. I never touched nuthin’.

Hello? Is anybody there?

While I was back with the browser, I noticed an unfamiliar icon in the tray. Do you know what it was? LogMeIn.

Should I get a ouija board, or what?

It reminded me of the night some years ago when I watched Ringu 2 on the TV. That’s the one in which TVs turn themselves on to reveal disturbing pictures. I was taking a shower at around midnight when I heard a noise downstairs. My TV had switched itself on, and I never touched nuthin’ that time, either.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Gunning Along the Champs Elysees.

I’m struggling with The Da Vinci Code. I’m getting to the point where I’m feeling reluctant to pick it up, because something else is bothering me now:

The Cliffhanger Technique.

You have a character tell 90% of a story, but you don’t let him finish it. Instead, you shift scene for the next couple of chapters and only reveal the dénouement three chapters down the line. It’s a creative writing technique to encourage the reader to keep turning the page, only it isn’t. It’s a commercial writing technique. It’s Saturday morning cinema stuff, and it’s getting on my nerves.

Meanwhile, let’s have an example of what’s been bugging me right from the start:

Sophie is driving Robert away from the Louvre, intent upon getting him to the relative safety of the American Embassy where he will receive protection from a false accusation of murder. This shouldn’t be too difficult because we’re informed that the embassy is only half a mile away. They drive, they talk, they screech around corners, and two pages further on we’re told that Sophie can breathe again because the embassy is now less than a mile away. See what I mean?

During the course of the drive, they take a hard left at a set of traffic lights. Robert looks behind him to see that the police aren’t following, but are still crowded round the Louvre. Ah, but, erm… they’ve just taken a hard left, so the Louvre isn’t behind them now. It’s over there, with a load of damn great buildings obscuring the view. See what I mean?

Any writer can make this sort of mistake; it’s partly what editors are for. The problem is, The Da Vinci Code is littered with them. Unacceptably so.

Oh, and let’s just throw something else into the mix:

While they’re making this great escape, we’re told that ‘Sophie gunned the car along the Champs ……..’ ‘Sophie gunned the car around a tight left.’ ‘Sophie gunned the car across the verge.’ Dan, vary the bloody verb, will you! When you’ve read ‘Sophie gunned the car’ five freggin’ times on one page, it gets a bit irritating, it really does.

I don’t think I’m up to the task of reading a popular novel. I’m not the sort who can be gunned along purely on the excitement of plot and character, missing all the flaws in my peripheral vision on the way. I see everything in my peripheral vision; it’s what the curse of keen awareness is all about. I fail the test. Guilty as charged.

I expect I’ll persevere just to find out who Sophie’s ancestor was (which I already know, of course, but it would be irritating not to let Dan – in the guise of Robert – explain it to me.)

And then there’s a Flann O’Brien novel I want to read. I doubt anybody will be gunning cars in a Flann O’Brien novel. If the only one I’ve read so far is anything to go by, irrationality will be a brilliantly constructed technique, not just a load of sloppy errors.