Cancel the Helium Balloons

I came across some advice recently on a writers’ blog, about handling your first book signing.  I was briefly interested as this is likely to happen to me at some point, but I don’t know what I expected.  Hints on how to interact with readers, perhaps; how to sign a thousand books without getting cramp; how to respond to difficult questions or prolonged conversations – maybe even how to deal with critical comments.  But none of these figured at all.  Instead the points were these:

  1. get your helium balloons inflated early
  2. if you are an introvert, take breaks from people
  3. dress comfortably
  4. iron the table-cloth
  5. if you bring bags of bite-size candy to give it away, bring scissors to cut the bag.

Wow.  I confess to being a bit gob-smacked by all of this.  OK so the word ‘candy’ gives away the transatlantic location; but you could just as well be organising a birthday party or a jamboree; there’s no reference whatsoever to books or fiction or signing or interacting with readers.  And it made me very depressed.  So here are my plans:

At my first book-signing there will be no bite-sized candy to give away; instead there will be bite-sized poetry.

At my first book-signing there will be no tablecloth.  I will wear comfortable clothes but they probably won’t be ironed.

At my first book-signing there will be books and there will be live poetry.

At my book signing there will be conversation and dialogue.  There will be meetings of minds.  There will be interaction between me and my readers, whom I will be interested and happy to meet, even if they are critical.

At my first book-signing I will sign books.

And you can cancel the helium balloons.   We won’t be needing them…

Kirk out

My Desert Island Discs

We’ve all done it – at least those of us who listen to radio 4 – we’ve all thought about choosing our own Desert Island Discs.  I used to have a definitive list which included at least four Leonard Cohen’s but recently I’ve been taking a different approach.  I’ve decided to do it chronologically, choosing one record which reminds me of a particular time in my life.  So, the first has to be ecclesiastical because my childhood centred on church; the second relates to school, the third is (of course) the first time I heard Cohen – and so on.  Here they are:

1.’O Jesus I Have Promised’, which reminds me of a time when the organist asked for my favourite hymn and then played it for me.  I couldn’t think of one so I said the first thing that came into my head, though I seem to remember my actual favourite was ‘I Vow to Thee My Country.’  It has to be the old tune though, not the bouncy modern one.

2.  The Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’.  I remember everyone singing this in the playground at junior school.  At the time I had never heard of The Beatles and I thought the Rolling Stones were something to do with the Flintstones.

3.  Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’.  I won’t bore you by recounting for the millionth time how I came to hear this.

4.  Another Cohen, ‘The Stranger Song’, which haunted me all through my teens.

5. For a time I lived in a one-horse town called Leigh in Lancashire where everyone was into Neil Young.  I too am a lifelong fan of this maverick and utterly individual musician; and the track that most reminds me of Leigh is this one:

5.  Back to Cohen, this time the first track I ever heard from ‘I’m Your Man’, which is ‘First We Take Manhattan.’  This reminds me of my first year in Leicester.

6.  Now we skip to Madrid, and a track by Juan Luis Guerra which is a plea for social justice:

7.  I have to have something yogic, so here is Steve Hillage of Gong with ‘Om Nama Sivaya’.  Strictly speaking this belongs to my time in Leigh but it’s my favourite version of the mantra:

8.  ‘If It Be Your Will.’  This to my mind is the most sublime thing Cohen ever did – and though Anthony’s version is transcendent, I’m going to go with the original.

And that’s it.  I have to say – and perhaps this is normal – that nothing much has moved me in the last two decades so much as it did in my teens and twenties.  Even in my thirties I was still discovering musicians and styles, but lately everything pretty much leaves me cold.  Still, I’d like to have included some Bach – perhaps a fugue instead of the Beatles – some more Cohen, and a few of the singers I loved in my youth, such as Joni Mitchell (‘River’ is amazing) James Taylor and Carole King.  But like Caitlin Moran said on today’s programme, you start off thinking it’s a great honour to be on Desert Island Discs and end up realising it’s a Sisyphean task.

Ah well.  Sisyphus is my middle name.  So go ahead and invite me already.

Kirk out


How and why does the time so fly?  It has been six days since my last post and I don’t know where they went.  The days whisk past like leaves blown off a calendar: I can hardly remember what I did during those six days apart from hosting a 60th birthday party – the rest is a bit of a blur.  Perhaps because of said birthday party…

But alas!  The same cannot be said of my nights.  The nights do not fly by.  The nights crawl on bloodied knees like penitents on pilgrimage; they slouch towards Bethlehem like Yeats’ rough beast; they ooze and creep like lava: in short, I have only to lie my weary bones down in a darkened room for the brain to get up and stand over me with a long to-do list and insist on checking off every item and discussing them in detail.  Then, having allowed me to doze fitfully until the small hours, it wakes me again with a completely black canvas labelled ‘The Future’.  There’s no arguing with this blackness: I know very well that at this hour the blood-sugar levels are lowest, conspiring with the lack of daylight to produce Unbalanced Visions, but still it refuses to go away.  And once I’ve spent an hour or two wrestling with it, the clock is creeping uncomfortably close to seven.


At such times, catching up with sleep becomes the main purpose of my day.  Normal life is gone and will resume at that point where sleep is sufficiently caught up with: but that point recedes like a desert horizon as I advance towards it.  It’s as if my mind is being managed by the most tyrannical of bosses.  Whatever I try, he’s got the answer.  Meditation? – all I need to do is hit you over the head enough times and you’ll soon stop.  Relaxation?  Fine, go ahead – you’ll never manage to relax me.  And so on.  I feel for insomniacs, I really do – because it takes over your life.  Sleep becomes your raison d’etre.  Sleep and only sleep.

And yet no-one really knows why we do it.  It’s not just in order to rest: if it were, we’d feel sufficiently replenished after an afternoon’s sun or an evening’s telly.  No; as a yoga teacher of mine used to say, the body needs rest, but the mind needs sleep.

Everyone knows that without sleep you eventually go mad.  It’s the easiest form of torture and nowadays sleep seems harder and harder to get: we are more stimulated, more subject to noise and stress than ever before, and our sleep suffers.

I’m not like this all the time.  I have periods where I sleep quite well: I know what it is to wake in the morning feeling refreshed.  And my techniques do work – at least some of the time.  But when that bastard brain gets it into his head to torment me – well, then I’ve had it.  But I’m not giving in.  I’ll beat the bastard yet.

Kirk out

Lark Rise to Kembleford

Seeing as how I often involuntarily rise with the lark, when dusk approaches I tend to be tired, so I take a trip to Kembleford where Father Brown lives.  Chesterton’s detective-priest might seem utterly dated today but this adaptation, while preserving the setting, modernises some of the attitudes.  As the parish priest of Kembleford, a village where the murder rate is so extraordinarily high it’s a wonder they have any inhabitants left, Father Brown manages to insert himself into every investigation and inevitably finds clues the police overlook in order to crack the case.  A priest makes an unlikely detective but they do have things in common: like detectives they hear confessions and they have a pass to situations where the rest of us can’t go.  They are also present at the end of life.

The plots are highly improbable and most of the characters cardboard cutouts, but what makes this watchable is the character of Father Brown.  The central character is done just right by Mark Williams of The Fast Show (also Mr Weasley in the Harry Potter series.)  He reminds me of the recently-deceased Rabbi Lionel Blue:

Though of different faiths they both exhibit the same patient, understanding manner; the same humility, the same essential faith. Father Brown’s belief in the potential of every human being for redemption causes him to stand alongside criminals and victims alike; a great antidote to these days of tabloid recrimination.

The episode where the character’s strength hit me most is The Eagle and the Daw, where Father Brown is wrongly accused of murder.  Instead of ranting about his innocence he sits patiently in his cell and waits for the outcome to unfold, even though these are still the days of capital punishment and the stakes are high.  Then when he is, inevitably, exonerated – and solves the case to boot – everyone gathers round to congratulate him.  But instead of lapping it all up he tells this story:

Once there was a jackdaw who was very vain.  He watched an eagle one day, soaring in the air.  ‘I can do that,’ said the jackdaw.  He watched the eagle swoop down on a baby lamb and carry it off into the sky.  ‘I can do that, easy,’ said the jackdaw, and he flapped his wings and flew high into the air.  He hovered over the flock, then swooped on a baby lamb and stuck his claws into it.  But he didn’t have the eagle’s strength so no matter how much he flapped his wings he couldn’t lift the lamb off the ground.  Then the farmer came along, caught him and put him in a cage for his children.  And there the jackdaw stayed.

There’s no vanity whatsoever in the character of Father Brown: he has no concern for his appearance, nor for social status.  Sometimes I wish I could be like that too – but it’s a bit of a tall order.  Still, inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest of places…

Here’s the latest episode:

Kirk out

PS  Like the title?  See what I did there?


Honey I Watched the Programme

OK it’s time once more to talk about Transgender issues.  If you are totally bored, fed up, sick and tired of hearing about this seemingly ubiquitous topic, I understand.  Feel free to scroll down to the next post.  However if, like me, you are baffled and confused and would like to understand it better, read on.

But first I would like to discuss something that’s happening a lot at the moment, and that is the closing down of debate.  I’m all for disallowing a platform to those who would use it to spread hatred of other groups; to insult people or to incite violence.  These are unacceptable and besides, we have laws about them.  But this has got confused with the idea of denying a platform to people who we disagree with.  Universities have banned speakers who support the state of Israel, for example, and Germaine Greer fell foul of students who disliked her stance on transgender people.  And last week a number of people decided (without watching it) that the BBC were ‘promoting’ the views of Dr Kenneth Zucker, who believes that parents know better than children when it comes to gender issues.  Now, as it happens I don’t agree with him – but that’s not the point.  Kenneth Zucker lost his job at a gender clinic for expressing and acting on views which most people (it seems) now disagree with.  There’s a new orthodoxy: challenge it at your peril.

I find this worrying.  We have to be free to express certain views, even at the risk of upsetting some people.  This is not the same thing as abuse or hate speech: to say that parents know best about their children’s gender, is not the same thing as calling trans people names, or saying they shouldn’t exist (and there’s plenty of that about).  People like Kenneth Zucker should be allowed to express their views, provided that within the context of a documentary they are balanced by a range of other views – which in this programme they were.

So: to the documentary, broadcast last week and called ‘Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?’  The programme featured the voices of children and parents on both sides of the argument, centring on – as the title says – who knows best: children – or parents and ‘experts’?

Now, I confess to a bit of seeing both sides here.  As a home educator I am firmly child-centred, allowing my children to choose how, what and where to learn (I don’t want to defend this approach here but I have blogged about it elsewhere:

So I am sympathetic to the idea that children know best who and what they are.  I also disagree with Kenneth Zucker’s view that the child is play-acting.  ‘You wouldn’t feed a child dog-food because they pretend to be a dog,’ he points out.  No, you wouldn’t – but play-acting is different from gender dysphoria.  A child might pretend to be another gender for a while, but gender dysphoria is, as the mantra has it, consistent, insistent and persistent.  In other words, it is repeated long and loud and it doesn’t go away.  If a child pretended to be a dog insistently over a long period of time, you would get help: so clearly something serious is going on here.  But on the other hand, childhood is a process, an evolution; a becoming.  So I’m uneasy about allowing children to make choices at too young an age which will affect the rest of their life.

What did become crystal clear to me was this: traditionally gender has been assigned at birth by the body you were born into.  This was the bottom line, and whatever thoughts or feelings the child was experiencing needed to come into line with the body.  Whereas nowadays, we tend to think the opposite: the mind and feelings express the ‘reality’ and the body must come into line with them, even if that means surgery.

Alongside this there is a demand that society should accept the transgender person for what they are.  Again, fine with me (in general, that is, putting aside my personal issues).  However, in practice this means remembering names, preferred pronouns and styles of address, and for the hapless ‘ordinary’ person it can be a minefield.  The other day I witnessed an unhappy interaction between a friend of ours and a m-to-f trans woman.  Our friend had known this woman for years as a man and was struggling to remember to call him ‘she’.  The woman really tore into him and I felt embarrassed and sorry for him because he was clearly not doing it to upset her; he just kept forgetting.

These demands that everyone accept us, remember what we want to be called and do it Or Else, are problematic.  I’ve just started doing an online course where one of the tutors, for reasons best known to herself chooses not to capitalise her name.  With the best will in the world, it’s extremely difficult to remember an individual set of names and pronouns every time you meet someone: I found this when I went to the ill-fated discussion on Gender in Nottingham (see this post:  To be honest, these days it’s as much as I can do to remember people’s names without having to deal with genders and preferred pronouns.  Yet if you forget, all hell can break loose.

So here’s the thing: no-one has the right to deny another’s right to exist.  Yeah, right on.  Totally signed up to that.  But no-one (and that includes me) has an absolute right to self-expression: we have to take account of those around us.  There has to be dialogue and interaction and discussion.  Which kind of brings me back to where I started…

Kirk out



I’ve just finished watching the fourth (and last?) series of ‘Sherlock’, the final episode of which (you cannot have failed to notice) was broadcast on Sunday.  Up to now I have watched breathless with admiration, lovestruck as Molly Hooper, Sherlocked as Irene Adler, bewildered as Lestrade and thoroughly enjoying every moment of Watson’s baffled outrage.  ‘Sherlock’ is TV drama of the highest quality; taking the original stories and doing so much more than merely updating them.  Benedict Cumberbatch is stunning, Martin Freeman is engaging, Mark Gatiss infuriatingly patrician as Mycroft, and all the supporting roles are perfectly cast: as an oldie I particularly enjoy seeing Una Stubbs play Mrs Hudson.  I love the way they use graphics to indicate his thoughts and – oh, there’s just so much I could say about the timing, the comic moments, the build-up – but alas, only one episode of this last series was truly enthralling.  In the first there was too much concentration on Mary (I’m all for having a proactive female character but then they killed her off!!!) and as the Guardian pointed out in this article, it was somewhat James Bond-y (OO221B, they called him).

Guardian review of ep 1es-bond-margaret-thatcher-mark-gatiss-steven-moffat-detective

The second episode was better, rooted once more in Baker St and harking back to the original stories with Sherlock as a drug addict risking his own life to save John Watson – by means of getting John Watson to come and save him.  But the third!  I’m not saying it was bad, but it was overblown: what with the islands and the helicopters and all the walls within walls and locations that weren’t what they seemed, they’d gone back to 007 again; and in the end there were so many climaxes that I felt quite exhausted.  It seemed that not only had I stopped enjoying it but the creators had stopped enjoying their creation and instead got focussed on going out with the biggest bang they could possibly contrive.  So on the whole I was disappointed; though it’s only fair to say that a lot of people found it breathtakingly exciting.

Anyway, here’s the link:

Kirk out


Well, wouldya just look at that!  Already it’s been five days since my last blog post – and how did that happen?  I’ll tell you how: I had a post brewing on the TV series ‘Father Brown’ and it’s just not ready to spread its wings and fly away yet, so it’s incubating in the drafts folder; and in the meantime I haven’t thought of another.  So since it’s Sunday and since I have a heavy head-cold and won’t be going to Quaker meeting lest I should inadvertently kill off half the Friends there by giving them my germs (they do tend towards the frail and elderly) I shall stay in the warm with you, my dear bloglets, and ruminate on Stuff.

If I ruled the world, there would be Nobel Prizes for nurses and Golden Globes for carers.  I say this not as a carer but an observer of my partner’s daily care of his father.  I would be a terrible carer, not only because I have zero patience with running about after someone else’s needs, but because as Alan Bennett comments in ‘The Lady in the Van,’ caring is about shit; and whereas that’s fine with your baby because you know they’ll grow out of it and because they make up for it in cuteness; with an elderly adult – well, you know where I’m going with that.  So carers deserve the top awards in society because they are doing our dirty work – and yet they get just about the shittiest deal going (pun intended).

And probably the shittiest of them all is to be a young carer, such as featured in the film we watched last night on BBC 3.  This channel is no longer on yer-actual box, but on what the iplayer coyly calls the ‘interweb’.  Its brief is to produce programmes for young people, so expect the oddball, the quirky, the outlandish and sometimes the downright offensive.  ‘Unconditional’ ticked three out of those four boxes, omitting to be offensive but managing instead to be completely compelling and disturbing.  Two young carers look after a severely disabled mother in Newcastle: like most carers they are stuck with little money and few prospects.  Into this world comes Liam, a loan-shark who is obviously a total creep but whom the youngsters find fascinating and exciting.  The girl approaches him for a loan which she hopes will change her life – and thinks she might get a date out of it as well – but he prefers hanging out with her brother.  It soon turns out he has a very specific agenda in mind…

I won’t put spoilers here but I do recommend watching if you have the i-player:

Kirk out

Look, I’m Just Disinterested, Alright?

Yes, it’s time again for One of Those Posts.  You know, the ones where I rant about words, their use and misuse and abuse and whether it’s time to – well, to call a truce.  I’ve given up with the apostrophe – although giving up feels  a bit like the Major in Fawlty Towers where he looks at his paper and says ‘Strike, Strike, Strike!  Why do we bother, Fawlty?’ to which Basil replies, sotto voce: ‘Didn’t know you did, Major.’  That’s my life: I bother about grammar and spelling and the uses, misuses and abuses of our demotic Anglo-Saxon (damn, these sit-coms keep getting in: that’s ‘Blackadder’ with Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson) and the world, in the shape of Basil Fawlty, repeats sotto voce, ‘Didn’t know you did, Lizardyoga.’

Well I can’t help it, and here is the latest batch of utterances to cross my verbal horizon.  First off, disinterested.  You must have heard it too; it’s everywhere: I last heard it on the radio this morning when an otherwise reasonably educated and eloquent presenter used it in broad daylight in front of a nationwide audience.  What he actually meant was uninterested: bored, alienated, reduced to a state of tedium.  Not disinterested.  Disinterested means – or used to mean, until these hooligans got hold of it – detached, impartial, uninvolved; as in a disinterested bystander.

And then there’s alright.  I grew up being rapped over the metaphorical knuckles for that spelling and being told that all right is two words, not one – but nowadays alright crops up in the best of circles * and the other spelling is rarely seen.  How do these things happen?

I suspect they happen for a variety of reasons; still, change as ever is effected through usage, and it’s pointless beefing about it.  But whereas all right and alright clearly mean the same and there is no appreciable reason why one should not be exchanged for the other; in the case of disinterested and uninterested we have two different words which are conflated with the result that one of them is lost.

Should we worry?  Should we send out a search party?  Don’t ask me.  And what’s with this horrid new word prideful?  What’s wrong with just saying proud?  I mean, does John Donne’s poem say ‘Death be not prideful’?  I don’t think so!

On the plus side (sort of) a friend on Facebook has invented or discovered a new word when she said that a delivery had been windowed for between nine and twelve of the clock.  Now, for all I know this verb is in constant use in delivery circles; workers at Amazon may tell each other on an hourly basis that parcels have been windowed between six a m and midnight (well it is Amazon, what d’you expect?) – but this verb was new to me and I quite like it.

There’s a lot of this sort of stuff going on and I keep trying to make a definitive list, but it’s like trying to build a castle out of water.  So that’s it for today.


Argh, I actually used it for real.  *Sigh.*

Kirk out

*crop circles, ha ha


If You Can Call it Living

Turns out there is life in Loughborough after all.  At first sight the place seems full of students and old people: you might think the students would add life but as OH says, they’re the wrong kind of students, ie the running and jumping kind rather than the partying and gigging variety.  But there is life: it’s rather like digging in a desert, where on the surface there’s nothing but just an inch or two below you find all manner of life-forms beavering away.  So to date I have found the Quakers, Emmanuel church, the Friday Room discussion group (a gathering of ‘progressives’) and now I am about to sample the delights of Loughborough’s very own junk food cafe, known here as the Utilise Social Cafe:

I have also been made aware of Monday evening courses on politics, plus a 38 Degrees group which meets monthly.  So that’s all good.  This evening we are going to Peter’s Pizza, officially the worst pizza in town (their reverse psychology seems to be working) in default of going to see ‘Silence’ which, since our schedules are so pathetically elderly, is Just Too Late.  I’m afraid 11.30 is past our bedtime.  Grrr.  It makes me feel like this couple:

Go to minute 23 – it’s brilliant.  And that’s my life…

Kirk out

It’s Insecure Wednesday Again

And once again the first Wednesday has crept upon me, unawares – and the question we are asked to ponder this month is: which writing rule do you wish you’d never read?  I didn’t have to think too long about this, because I’ve always thought that Hemingway’s stricture of ‘paring everything to the bone’ was unhelpful and wrong-headed.  Hemingway made a virtue out of minimalism; he stripped away everything he considered to be unnecessary and crowed loud and long about paring to the bone.  But at first, while I instinctively disliked the idea, I couldn’t find arguments against it.  I mean, you don’t want excess vocab, do you?  Flowery descriptions, overstatement, repetition; none of these are good habits for an author, are they?

Many people respect Hemingway as one of the twentieth century’s great writers; but I’m afraid I think he’s overrated.  This is not just because I dislike a lot of what he stood for, such as the macho values he found while living in Spain, expressed in the bullfight (I went to a corrida once and it made me feel ill*) it’s because of this particular stricture.  If you pare things right down to the bone you end up with a skeleton, not a fully-fledged novel.  You want flesh on those bones; you want veins and arteries, skin and hair and nails.  You want features and mannerisms: you want a body.

In the end it’s not so much that I wish I’d never read his advice; it’s more that I wish I’d never acted on it – because for years I was suspicious of anything approaching verbiage in my own work.  I ended up slashing many a valuable phrase because Hemingway’s strictures had got into my mind.  Paring to the bone can be a useful editing tool, but not an end in itself.

So that’s it for today.  Happy writing, fellow Insecure people!

Kirk out

*only so that I could say I knew what I was talking about