The Blandest Thing on the Menu

What am I doing at the moment? I’m glad you asked. I’m rewriting a story I first wrote years ago for Woman’s Weekly magazine. Why? Because women’s magazines pay squoodles of dosh for a story and I thought it was worth a bash. I had several bashes at it in fact and I did ‘study’ the magazine as you’re supposed to before submitting, the conclusions of my study being that I should make the story as bland as possible. Now, things have moved on since then and it may be that Woman’s Weekly is as raunchy these days as Cosmo once was, but in those days the stories were so gentle as to be practically soporific. Well, I gave it my best shot (of valium)and when one story was rejected I wrote another, even blander one. Of course there’s no way of knowing why a story has been rejected so I might have been completely on the wrong track, but I couldn’t help thinking of Goodness Gracious Me and the guys who get hammered and ‘go for an English.’

I guess blandness isn’t in my nature… but it can be problematic to find out what is in your nature and other people’s guidelines are a very blunt instrument for doing so; sometimes they help and sometimes they don’t. If I’m feeling secure, I just sweep the unhelpful ones aside. But today I discovered Colm Toibin’s rules for writing and they made me feel thoroughly inadequate. He suggests writing all day with a short break for lunch and then another for the news, then writing until bedtime. No sex, alcohol or drugs while writing (yes, I agree with that) but not much of anything else either. I know I can’t work like that, and I ended up feeling quite inadequate. ‘I’m not doing enough! I’m not dedicated enough!’ And underneath it all the sly whisper of conditioning, is this because I’m a not a man? Am I actually the blandest thing on the menu?

But what’s missing here is context. From the tone of these rules I suspect that he wrote them for himself rather than for others; I also suspect that he has periods of writing and periods of rest as no-one could keep up such a schedule 24/7/365. In any case other writers’ rules are very hit-and-miss, and when they miss we should give them a wide berth.

Kirk out

Is It Summer Yet?

Thanks to climate change it’s been summer, on and off, since the middle of February when we had unseasonable warmth. Unfortunately we then skipped back to autumn with a touch of wintry chill and a storm or two when the greenhouse I had so optimistically put up blew down again, then back to spring, a bit more summer before settling on what used to be ‘normal’ temperatures. I guess what we have at the moment is typical for May, so I’ve been dithering about putting my basil plants out but now I’ve decided. The instructions (presumably seed packets haven’t yet caught up with global warming) say put them out at the end of May and the end of May it is, so out they go.

I said I’d get to Summer of Rockets and so I shall, but first I gotta tell you! Last night! Oh, my god. I’d read about the National Theatre’s production of All My Sons and it sounded so good I wished I could get down to see it. But that’s never going to happen so when I saw it was coming to the Phoenix (in a ‘stage on screen’) I knew I had to go. I tried to assemble a small group but in the end it was just one friend accompanying me. And wow. That’s all I can say, just wow. I was so gripped, I felt emotionally drained at the end of it. It’s such a harrowing play – not in an Auschwitz kind of way but in a ‘small close-knit families betraying each other’ way. I’m not going to tell you the plot because if you don’t know it, the denouement should come as a shock to you as it did to me. But if you get a chance to see this production, go. And if you’re in London, for god’s sake go to the Queen Vic – I mean the Old Vic – and see it. It was one of those plays that stays with you long after the curtain goes down.

The oddly-titled TV drama Summer of Rockets begins oddly and has odd dialogue – so odd that I nearly turned it off. But enter the divine Keeley Hawes and I was hooked. I’m glad I persevered because it’s an intriguing drama centring on a Russian emigre and his unlikely friendship with Hawes’s character, the aristocratic wife of an MP. Timothy Spall features as a rather crocodile-like brother and when the Cold War moves from being a backdrop to a central feature of their lives, the drama hots up. The sub-plots – the mysterious disappearance of the MP’s son which his wife investigates tirelessly, and the Russian’s daughter who is being groomed as a deb against her will – are fascinating in their own right even before they somehow join up. I’m only on episode 3 so I’ll keep you posted.

Kirk out

Excuse Me While I Colour the Sky

Just when you think it’s safe to wake up in the morning, this happens:

OH: I have serious problems understanding why the sky is blue.

Me: Oh?

OH: Don’t you?

Me: I hate to break this to you, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it

OH: In fact I don’t believe it is blue. I think it’s actually purple.

Me: Oh, right

OH: Don’t you think so?

Me: I don’t know really. I don’t think about it much

OH: I have serious problems understanding why the sky is purple.


OH: do you know what I mean?

Me: I really think you should stop asking that question

Last night I went to see Rocketman. I first came across Elton in the early seventies (I still have Honky Chateau) and have always considered him a total one-off. There’s a sort of rocket theme going on at the moment with the oddly-titled Stephen Poliakoff Summer of Rockets (I’ll probably get to that later) but the biopic was stupendous. It was stirring, stonking, stupefying and contained stupid amounts of alcohol and drugs.

The story begins with Elton in a red and gold outfit with wings – like a cross between a superhero and a carnival queen – walking off stage and into rehab from where he tells the rest of the story in flashback. The narrative focusses on the early to middle years: Reggie’s childhood with an emotionally absent father and a self-indulgent mother – his Gran the only person who takes an interest – his scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, his interview with a record company and subsequent meeting with Bernie Taupin and then the rocket-like trajectory of his success. And here the film really goes to town with the songs, the outfits, the glasses, the concerts, the parties, the coming-out as gay, the fake marriage to Renata, the success and the excess and the final crash.

What made the film so great and so un-cliched was the naturalistic acting of Taron Egerton (he also played Eddie the Eagle) and his singing! I was astonished to discover that he actually sang the songs, as he managed to sound so like Elton and yet without parody.

The film was made in collaboration with the singer himself and it finishes with a short update and some pictures of him with David Furnish. It was a shame the film didn’t get as far as his friendship with Diana but then that’s a whole nother story.

So there it is. Now showing at a cinema near you.

Kirk out

Did You ‘Like’ It? Or Just Read It?

OK I need your help here because my stats don’t add up. I’ve suspected for some time that they did not adequately reflect the number of visitors to the blog. How probable is it that you get twelve visitors and twelve ‘likes’? What really tipped the balance though was when I had more likes than visitors – now that just ain’t possible. So can you do me a favour? If in the last week or two you’ve read a post without liking or commenting, could you drop me a word or two below? Just one word will do and then I’ll know.


Kirk out

She’s Finally Gone

Yes, she’s finally gone – the woman who seemed so welded to her position that nothing could dislodge her; not so much a Teflon leader as one bolted into position with the bolts rusted tight. She had survived crises which would have unseated any other PM, any other time: calling an election to increase her authority and losing her majority, having as a consequence to call on – ie bribe – the DUP for support, thus potentially destabilising the Good Friday Agreement; failing to get support for her Brexit bill; bringing the same bill back twice more and finally bringing back a slightly amended bill which so many of her own MP’s said they wouldn’t support that the vote had to be shelved – all in all she resembles nothing so much as a steamroller crashing through the countryside, deaf to cries that she is wrecking everything in her path. Even now she hasn’t quite gone, just set a date to go (admittedly not too far ahead) after which she will remain as ‘caretaker’ until they elect a new leader (not Boris, please not Boris…)

It beggars belief. I simply cannot understand what goes on in that woman’s mind and neither, it seems, can anyone else. Like Thatcher she got quite emotional at the end and I almost felt sorry for her, but you can’t help thinking, why the hell didn’t you listen to anyone?

So, what potential delights do the Bastard Party – sorry, Tories – have in store for us? Front runners are probably Johnson, Gove, Leadsom and Hunt with others such as Rudd and Javid bringing up the rear. It’s a crowded field all right and interesting though it would be to have a Muslim leader or another woman, I can’t see either Leadsom or Javid cutting it. In the end I think it’s going to be between Johnson, Gove and Hunt and I think of the three I’d marginally prefer Gove, despite him being this generation’s John Selwyn Gummer. Needless to say I’m not keen on any of them. It’s hard to see how they can avoid having a general election soon, and that could be between Johnson and Corbyn. Interesting times…

Enjoy your Bank Holiday weekend.

Kirk out

Can You Inkle?

I always thought The Inklings was rather a twee name for Tolkein and Lewis’s little club of authors but this hasn’t stopped me subscribing to the Daily Inkling. Neither a newspaper of Narnia nor a broadsheet of Middle Earth, this is a series of daily blog prompts which, as I mentioned the other day, are a useful back-up for when my brain is running on empty.

Yesterday was unusual: I dropped in to vote in the European elections (please God don’t let Farage win, he’ll be unbearable. I mean more unbearable…) and stopped off at the library to return The Horse and His Boy. I’ve decided that reading fantasy, particularly children’s fantasy since the adult kind seems to be focussed on clashings of swords and bucklings of swashes (ooh, now at my back I hear a gathering army of protestors, speaking of Pratchett and others I haven’t read. So be it) where was I? Yes, reading children’s fantasy books in bed is a great way to get to sleep. Paul McKenna advises not reading anything before sleep besides his book, but the habit is too deeply ingrained for me to give it up. However, I recognise that a Rebus or a Nicci French is probably not the best thing for inducing a peaceful drowsiness, so I hit on the idea of fantasy. I began with Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and then went on to the Narnia novels. I’m now beginning His Dark Materials. What’s important about these books is that they transport you to other worlds, meaning that you are already in an almost trance-like state by the time you slot in your book-mark and turn off the light.

This was leading on to something… oh yes, today’s blog post prompt. What was it again? ‘How important is physical fitness in your life?’

Well, yoga is very important. I guess you get more attuned to your body the more you do it, but it beats me how people can survive without a good daily stretch. If I miss it even for one day I feel stiff and listless because yoga not only stretches the muscles and joints, it raises the kundalini, the vital energy that keeps us all going and without which we are running on empty. This is why so many people drink coffee whereas in yoga stimulants are strongly discouraged (I have tea in the mornings and herbal infusions after that.)

But the missing dimension to yoga is a good cardio-vascular workout. Unless you do a number of rounds of surya namaskar (about which I have mental blocks as I’ve mentioned before) you don’t get many aerobic benefits. So whilst I go for a brisk walk sometimes and dig the garden most days, it probably isn’t enough. But I can’t bring myself to jog or go to the gym so the occasional zumba session to youtube videos is as far as it gets.

There. That’s today ticked off. Have a good Bank Holiday weekend. Oh, and the book I borrowed from the library? The Silence of the Girls. Was it any good? I couldn’t stop reading it. And that was yesterday.

Kirk out

Patrick Who?

Oh. My. God. Sometimes you come across an author and think, why the hell haven’t I read this person before? I’d heard of Edward St Aubyn but, whether from reverse snobbery or whether because there are just too many people to read, I hadn’t delved into him until I came across a TV series called Patrick Melrose. Even then I might have scrolled on, had it not starred the incandescent Benedict Cumberbatch. I am always stunned by the power of that guy’s acting and it’s pleasing to learn that both he and the series won Baftas last week.

OH and I were utterly destroyed by Patrick Melrose. We emerged from a two-day binge as exhausted as the protagonist himself after a weekend on coke, shattered and begging for more. Once we’d finished all five episodes I had to go straight to my dealer (Alibris) and get the books.

If I tell you it’s a series of novels about an abused child, economically and socially privileged but neglected by one parent and cruelly used by the other, a boy who as an adult goes on drug-fuelled binges and considers himself abstemious if he takes coke instead of heroin, a man who ends up like all junkies calling his dealer at one in the morning and finding him unavailable takes a taxi to the badlands of New York to score in a back alleyway – if I told you all this you’d likely yawn and scroll down. Patrick Melrose is all these things, but how can I begin to convey how compelling it is?

For a start the social milieu – the bored and boring wealthy – ought to be a total turn-off. Patrick’s mother-in-law, inexplicably nicknamed Kettle, takes the biscuit with her selfishness and snobbery, but Kettle’s crimes are as nothing to Nicholas Pratt, Patrick’s father’s oldest friend, and Patrick’s father himself.

David Melrose is a monster. His idea of parenting is to give a child the worst possible experience, a childhood of which they can say ‘if I made it through that I can make it through anything.’ Having been abused by his own father, the young David sabotages his talent for music and neglects his gifts as a doctor; whether without these experiences he would have been a sadistic rapist is debatable but that is what he becomes. The first novel opens with David holding forth from an upper window of their holiday home in France and keeping the housekeeper in conversation ‘long enough for her arms to ache but not long enough for her to drop the tray.’ After his wife complains about the figs going to waste he forces her in front of guests to eat the fruit where it lies. He is a ruthless bully and serial rapist who attacks both his wife and his five-year-old son. No Childline in those days.

All this is enough to make any adult turn to drugs. Having an independent income, Patrick gets to shoot up in hotels and bathrooms instead of piss-stained stairwells, though he resorts to the back streets when other sources fail him. But after a few years of this his inheritance has dwindled and to support his wife and child he is forced to take up a profession. Sadly his practice of the law is more honoured in the breach and he dedicates far more energy to his career as an alcoholic, inevitably leading to the breakdown of his marriage.

The cast of over-privileged characters behave so badly that it’s hard to believe we’re not back in the 19th century: they could easily have come out of Proust. Why doesn’t the housekeeper tell David to eff off? Why doesn’t Eleanor throw David out? It’s her house, after all, and her money – but from the start he has dominated her by sheer force of character. Rather than confront her problems she becomes a drunk and then, continuing the theme of displacement, she gives generously to Save the Children instead of saving her own son. Nobody challenges the right of these people to behave exactly as they wish, but why not? It’s the 1970’s, after all, not the 1870’s, the world outside has cast off deference. The answer lies in the mana they have; the absolute belief that they have the right to rule. They live in an ultra-privileged bubble as they move from taxi to hotel to beach to country house in a merry-go-round of splendid isolation. Most people refer to the survival statistics on the Titanic with horror; here they are recited with approbation (‘no-one from steerage survived’ – and quite right, too.) Debating with them is pointless because they are already the victors: ‘She always felt that her high cards were being displaced by a small trump’ – like Blackadder’s Elizabeth saying ‘Who’s Queen?’ Who’s rich? Whose house is this?

These tendencies reach their apotheosis at a dinner party where the guest of honour is Princess Margaret. Referred to by all as ‘PM’ as though elected leader of the nation, she is abominably rude and subjects the French ambassador to the humiliation of kneeling and wiping her dress after he splashes soup on it. Afterwards when someone suggests to PM that people are privileged by ‘accident of birth’, she snaps back, ‘birth is no accident.’

Horribly fascinating though this is, what keeps you reading is the journey of Patrick himself. Will he make it as a human being? After so much neglect and abuse, after so many drugs and failed relationships, will he finally attain the humble position of husband and father? His main support – and the only real human being in the series – is Johnny, himself a recovering alcoholic who through the process has learned humility. This is the key, we seem to think; the ability to think of oneself as merely human, no better and no worse than anyone. It’s Johnny to whom Patrick confesses that he was raped as a child; it’s Johnny who persuades him to attend therapy.

As a series, Patrick Melrose begins stonkingly. Five novels is a lot to sustain (an unusual number for a book sequence) but it sags a little during the second half of novel four and tails off towards the end. In spite of this it has passages of coruscating brilliance such as Patrick’s manic, drug-fuelled stream-of-consciousness and later his son Robert’s thoughts as a baby. It’s a tough gig to describe the thoughts of a pre-verbal child but he brings it off well:

‘He could see everything through the transparent walls of his fish-tank cot. He was looked over by the sticky eye of a splayed lily. Sometimes the breeze blew the peppery smell of freesias over him and he wanted to sneeze it away. On his mother’s nightgown spots of blood mingled with streaks of dark orange pollen.’ This is all great stuff, but by the time his other son Thomas is born I became wearied by the children’s precocity. It’s hard to believe that a three-year-old would talk in the way Thomas does; in any case, you should only have one genius in any family – look what happened to the Holmes’s.

A propos of which, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Benedict Cumberbatch doing justice to this role. Imagine Sherlock without Watson but with loads of sex and drugs and you’ll get an idea. But don’t just settle for having an idea – go watch the series and when you have, get the books. You’ll thank me.

Kirk out

Are You a Moron?

I like to think of my readers as intelligent. You may not all be Einsteins (though who knows, perhaps you are) but I can tell from your comments and blogs that you’re thoughtful and sensible folk. I am also intelligent (this is not a boast as I’ll explain below) and a key part of intelligence is openness; being receptive to new ideas. Creativity is always searching, always questing, never 100% certain. So yesterday I checked out a list of fifteen (it’s always a multiple of five, isn’t it?) tips for better blogs. I’ve also signed up to daily blog prompts, not that I need them but it’s useful to have extra ideas from time to time.

My first impression was that the ‘Really Useful Blog Writing Guidelines‘ was basically ‘how to write for morons.’ First, you should check ‘readability’ which means, don’t make it too hard to read. Don’t use long and complicated words. Avoid difficult concepts. Hm. Not sure about that… Then eschew (oo, is that a complicated word?) eschew linking words (aka conjunctions) and use short sentences. Nope, don’t agree with that. Forget about the passive voice (depends whether it’s needed, otherwise I agree) dispense with the past perfect tense and don’t use excessive punctuation. OK, I might be guilty of that one. Oh, and leave lots of white space.

I can see where they’re coming from: keep it punchy, keep it real, cut out the verbiage. Fair enough. But I want to write for intelligent, thoughtful people; people who care about books and ideas, people who are engaged with culture and politics; people whose attention span is longer than that of a gnat. People who can follow a sentence through a couple of conjoined clauses without losing the thread. Folk who care about the difference between simple past and past perfect. There are a lot of claims on our time so I keep posts short, but short doesn’t have to mean shallow.

If all that’s elitist, then call me Jacob Rees Mogg. But intelligent doesn’t have to mean highly educated. Intelligence is not merely an accident of birth, it’s a quality (or spectrum of qualities) you develop. In the end I don’t write for an elite; I write for people who care – about words, ideas, culture, gardening, anything. I don’t write for folk who can’t be arsed.

Here endeth the epistle.

Kirk out

PS Far too many brackets in that post

Mum Season Three


If there was ever a sitcom where so little happens and where narrative is stretched to an unbearable degree, it’s Mum. I’ve blogged about series one and two before, and since Michael and Cathy finally – sort of – almost – get together at the end, I’d assumed that was it. But there’s more – and this time the tension comes from the fact that as a couple they are not ‘out’ yet, especially not to Cathy’s son Jason who, still reeling from his father’s death, is giving Michael a hard time. Cathy finds an unexpected ally in daughter-in-law Kelly who eventually tells Jason he’s being a ‘bellend’ but as always nothing is resolved until the final seconds when Cathy and Michael run away to frolic in the woods. ‘What a moment to put herself first!’ complains Pauline, who never does anything but.

They’ve cleverly gone for a new setting this time: the series spans a week away in a country mansion, hired to celebrate Derek’s birthday. Girlfriend Pauline has indulged her snobbery to the utmost in hiring the place for the week: it’s got towels in the shape of swans and when people arrive she tells them all she was ‘just about to take a dip in the pool’, despite it being freezing cold.

My main beef with this is that apart from Cathy and Michael who progress towards union at a snail’s pace, the other characters don’t change. There’s plenty of opportunity for small epiphanies but potential sub-plots such as Kelly’s unacknowledged pregnancy and whether Derek and Pauline will get married, are not developed. Even when Cathy gives Pauline a longed-for slap in the face and tells her to ‘go f*** yourself’ nothing changes: Pauline carries on treating Derek like dirt and he carries on taking it. In fact he abandons self-respect to such a degree that it’s embarrassing.

So on the whole it’s a bit of a Giant’s Causeway of a series. If you enjoyed the first two it’s worth seeing, otherwise it’s not worth going out of your way to see.

Kirk out

Tasty Snack or Hasty Smack?

I’m back on the yoga philosophy trail again and I caught myself wondering this morning as I hovered on the edge of discipline looking into the chasm of dreariness, where does healthy self-control end and Professor Gradgrind take over? I know it happens but I can’t quite figure out how.

The yoga term for self-discipline – I was living in Spain when I discovered this and it seemed highly amusing – is tapas. This is an individual process rather than something imposed from outside, though external disciplines can help. When I was living in the yoga centre I learned a great deal about myself, particularly that I was not good at getting up at six a m. Then again, getting up at six did help me to push the boundaries of my life. That was a good discipline. On the other hand asana sessions always began with several rounds of sun salutations which at that time I found utterly crippling. Had I been given some modifications I might have found a way into this practice; as it is, even today I still have a mental block about it. That was not a good discipline.

Discipline from outside is a double-edged sword; you have to know what is enough and what is too much. Over the years I’ve learned to take what helps me and ignore the rest, because in the end what matters is self-discipline. If you can’t control yourself you’re in deep trouble – or everyone else is: look at Trump. But here’s the rub: how much discipline is enough?

When I began writing full-time like most people I had trouble getting into a routine. So I imposed one and made myself work from nine till five with timed breaks for tea and lunch. That was fine initially but after a while it exhausted me because that inflexible routine ignored the real patterns of creativity. Sometimes I need to sit in the garden and think. Sometimes I need to read or go for a walk; some days I must finish early or go mad. Then again there are afternoons when I write, oblivious of time, until I’m called for dinner (I know – lucky me not having to cook.)*

Routine is a good servant but a bad master; in the end you have to follow the river of art no matter where it leads.

Kirk out

*Every woman at some point has to stop writing and put the dinner on. That is her tragedy. No man does: that is his.