Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Character Test

Many people think that being good means helping the poor, the sick, the infirm. These are all worthy things to do but, in my experience, the true test of goodness is how long you can tolerate a person who bores you. Maybe I am alone in this but, when trapped in the company of someone who exercises no editorial control on the tide of inconsequential reminiscence they let loose each time they speak, I find it hard to behave nicely. My thoughts turn to escape plans and, while I try to ensure that I do not bruise my wordy companion's feelings, my abrupt departure and my fairly unlikely excuses probably do not fill them with confidence or joy.

And then there are meetings. And speeches. Lord, speeches, how I hate them.

If I am not alone in my inability to endure boredom, there may be an opportunity for a technical minded person - if someone could invent an absolutely minute device that could be hidden inside the ear and could broadcast interesting podcasts and comedy programmes to the wearer, I think there might be a large market waiting. Imagine the joy of sitting through a team meeting or a distant relative's monologue, nodding and smiling, calm, unstressed, all the time secretly entertained by a tiny voice that nobody else can hear.

While on the subject of improvements to modern life, why don't we bury sll those ugly industrial areas that surround most cities - those long stretches of warehouses and panelbeaters and even shopping malls and so forth? Most of them appear to be more or less windowless, so why not build them underground?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Just Read - Stephen King, On Writing

Having watched me grapple for several years with a non-fiction project that may turn out to get the better of me, a member of my family decided I needed some help. So for Christmas she bought me On Writing by Stephen King.

I imagine that all of Stephen King's work is easy to read and that this is one of the secrets of his success.  Certainly this book is. It is clear and sensible. It doesn't flash across the firmament but it is interesting, (although the parts about King's personal life interested me less than they might interest readers who are King fans; on the other hand, I was very impressed by his devotion to his wife).

Nothing he says about writing is particularly new but these are the points that struck me as more worth remembering than most:

"You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself."

"The scariest moment is just before you start."

"You should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day."

King himself aims for two thousand words a day and he confesses that:

"On some days those ten pages come easily; I'm up and out doing errands by eleven thirty in the morning ... More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day's work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I'm still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2000 words."

He explains that:

"Once I start work on a project, I don't stop - and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind - they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale's narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best - always, always, always - when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer."

He also quotes advice he received form a mentor called John Gould:

"When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."

To this King adds, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open".

My absolute favourite bit of the book is the one that reminds the reader that, when a writer is alone at their desk with the door closed, they can do whatever they like, they can be as boring or as strange as they please and they have absolutely nothing to lose, (except some time, I suppose):

"I don't believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it's reasonably reader-friendly ... And now that I've waved that caution flag ... let me reiterate that it's all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn't that an intoxicating thought? Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."

Okay, so now I must get back to the octopus - I mean non-fiction project.

I may be some time.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Small Pleasures

In free commuter papers there are often columns where members of the public can submit their declarations of love for strangers they have glimpsed during their daily rush to or from work. Awww. Sweet.

Not really, when you think about it. More just a way to fill inches of newsprint at almost no cost.

Or, as it turns out, a way for someone fantastically bored by their work to make life very slightly more fun.

That was what one of these columns became for an Irishman who calls himself Shocko. He admitted his disgraceful behaviour on Twitter recently, (coming clean only three years after the event, which I suppose is better late than never).

Here is the entry he claims as his first entirely fictional but accepted entry in the Metro newspaper in London:

"Girl in Bring Back Hanging T-Shirt" - how on earth did they fall for it?
More followed:

Having succeeded with "Bearded man who used discarded burger cartons as castanets" as a name tag, (not to mention, "Shy guy with shin pads, a hurdle and 200+ tennis balls" [that hurdle is a stroke of genius]), your man decided to branch out into the good deeds column, (where more inches are filled for free, with accounts of good deeds supposedly witnessed on London streets):

As our hero observes, the good deeds section gave him the opportunity to conjure up some scenes so charming I'm sorry they didn't actually occur:

Finally, the great day dawned when Shocko managed to get items published in the good deeds column and the commuter crush one - two items on one day, hurray:

But this, it turned out, was the zenith. After that, although few more submissions slipped through, his glory days were behind him:

Rejections came thicker and faster; perhaps they had twigged somehow - Shocko speculates they'd noticed these things turned up always from the same IP address:

There was one final twist in the tale, when an unknown person managed to get a crush item published that concerned Shocko himself - the inventor of good deeds and crushes became the object of someone else's game. After considerable effort Shocko managed to discover who was responsible for turning the tables, but for that story you will need to go over to Twitter and look at the tweets of @shockproofbeats for mid December last year. If you do, you will also learn of his subsequent adventures with Nutella, which led to his being featured in no less a publication than the Daily Mail, (yes, wow).

But before you do speed across to Twitter, I'd like to point out the moral of the story (a recurring one on this blog), which is that Twitter doesn't have to be a cesspit; it can instead be a place of light-hearted frivolity. If only someone clever would come up with a way to let that cheerful part of Twitter - the idiotic fooling around bit - completely slice itself off from the "I Hate Trump", 'I'm Real Donald Trump", 'Well I Really Hate You", "Well I'm Going to Build a Wall", "Yeah, Well I Hate You Anyway" end of things, Twitter would become a force for almost unadulterated good.  But I suppose it won't happen - as in every other area of life I imagine that on Twitter somehow there is no separating the delightful from the dross.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Mysteries - an Occasional Series

I bought a clear shockproof protector for my telephone screen today. I'd already had the screen replaced once, and I know so many people who walk about with telephones that have cracked screens that it seemed a good idea, especially for someone who is as inclined to trip over and drop things as I am.

Afterwards, as I was sticking the thing onto my telephone, it did occur to me that it might be more convenient, if less lucrative for the telephone manufacturer, if they simply made the screens shockproof to begin with.

Is the fact that they don't really a mystery though? It depends how cynical you are, I suppose.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Battered Penguin - Time After Time by Molly Keane

Yes, all right, it isn't a Penguin but it is a paperback and, better still, it is awfully good. The story concerns four ageing brothers and sisters who live in a large, decaying house in Ireland in the mid to late 20th century. As we are informed early on:

"Money was the hopeless problem".

Each of the four is imagined with great accuracy and Molly Keane takes pains to portray the fading splendour in which they live - with emphasis on the fading: "the old breath of human dinners and dogs' dinners, chickens' and pigs' dinners too, combined with cats' earths and dogs' favourite urinals, all clung to the air like grey hairs in a comb" - and the ways in which each manages to find interest in their quiet forgotten lives. While one makes "tweed pictures", (something I've never heard of before but which sounds quite awful), another is devoted to preserving the shreds of her beauty, a third to producing food from the estate and being involved with horses, while Jasper, the oldest, takes pleasure in cooking in the quite revoltingly dirty kitchen and in being in the place where he grew up:

"On his way back to the kitchen Jasper stopped for a minute on the turn of the staircase where, from the high, floor-length window, he saw a swan rise through the ribbons of mist lying along the river. There is ecstasy in a swan's flying: in the neck leaning lasciviously on the air, the body stretched behind the shouting wings. He watched while his swan took her short flight and dropped back through the mists to the water, her landing lost to his sight. It was as much as Jasper asked of ny emotional moment: to be and to cease. He was never one for squandering emotion. He had saved and pinched and scraped on it in so many directions that, finally, there was very little left to squander."

What a beautiful description and how brilliant that Keane manages to widen our understanding of Jasper through painting this scene.

There are one or two secondary characters, notably the frightful Lady Alys who exercises that particular kind of polite cruelty that the British upper classes seem to love so much:

"She had soft, well-taught manners, through which she was as quick to destroy as to please."

When May, one of the sisters, has the opportunity to take revenge on Lady Alys by smashing a piece of Meissen, she doesn't for "small beautiful objects were, to May, far more important than the breakage of her own self-respect and confidence." A fascinating insight into her personality and an interesting approach to life.

Having set the scene and conjured up the characters brilliantly, a dangerous visitor from the past is introduced into the story, but not before the reader has grown fond of the characters already there, `9in the way one might be fond of family members; that is, while recognising their myriad faults).


It appears that all are now plunging towards doom and disaster but, delightfully, things, while not suddenly turning out brilliant, do not end up as badly as one might expect. I appreciated this as much as I did the superb observational skill of the writer and the extraordinarily vivid way in which she created the world of her novel.

A really excellent book about a group of people who could easily be overlooked and considered boring but who turn out to be fascinating and entirely human. I loved it.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

I Heard That - Arcadia by Lauren Groff

While some might argue that Arcadia is a bit lush and really quite sentimental, (as a lover of Charles Dickens, I'm obviously more than prepared to overlook sentimentality), those criticisms should not overshadow the gifts Lauren Groff displays in this book.  Her story concerns Bit, the first child born in a commune called Arcadia, which is set up in the 1970s by a group of idealistic young Americans, headed by a guru figure who, like most guru figures, turns out to be a careless egoist.

Groff traces Bit's story from childhood to middle age and in the process conjures up a huge cast of characters in a landscape that comes to life vividly in the reader/listener's mind. It becomes clear that, although most of the commune's founders act from the best of intentions, motivated by idealism and goodwill, good intentions are not enough and parents, however well-intentioned, may harm their children through their own idealism. All the same, Groff's tale does not set out to moralise but simply recounts the events as they happen. It is I suppose fiction as a slice of life.

Eventually, the commune collapses and many of Bit's contemporaries spin out into the wider world in various states of damage. Bit too must make his way beyond the confines of the landscape where he has grown up and his existence thereafter is defined to some extent by a yearning for that earlier way of life.

People come and go, some age and die, others vanish, a new generation is born. Nothing astonishing happens and yet the novel is never boring. It is the engrossing depth of Groff's imagined world - in particular, the rich variety of characters she has invented - that holds the attention. It is a mark of her achievement that I find myself missing the company of the people her novel introduced me to, now that I have finished the book