The Five Best Things About Having a Blog

WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.

Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing. So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.

Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.

Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.

Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.

Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.

And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.

So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.

Kirk out

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I’ve Been Thinking…

I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of continual innovation. It’s not, ironically, new: I think it was Trotsky who came up with the idea of perpetual revolution, and although communism as he and Marx intended was never actually practised (what do I think of Soviet communism? It would have been a good idea) I can’t help feeling it would be terribly wearing. Because what we have now is perpetual innovation; perpetual change, perpetual upgrading. Goalposts are moved daily. Targets are shifted weekly. Marriages break up or break down, people redefine themselves, those who deplored tattoos now have them all over their bodies – and so it goes on. When I look at the news I see names I don’t recognise, and it’s not only ‘celebrities’ (when I watch Celebrity Mastermind I rarely know any of the contestants) but also politicians. I had really no idea who Gavin Williamson was until he was sacked and half of the cabinet are strangers to me.

But could it be that I’m just getting old? Possibly. It’s very hard to know, though – I mean, how do you measure the changes you grew up with against the changes my children are experiencing? Douglas Adams had a very pertinent comment to make on this, and he’s right – but how do you tell if today’s innovations are speedier than yesterday’s?

I guess we have to go to history for an overview: in any case there does seem to be a consensus that change is speeding up. In all probability this won’t continue: history teaches us that periods of rapid change often give way to slower times with an absorption of what has gone before. Or we could look at nature: consider a river, say, running quickly as it starts, forging down the hillside and then gathering itself together, slowing down as it reaches the plains and then winding leisurely towards the ocean. Nothing that grows fast carries on fast, except for one or two plants and they’re generally parasitical.

Like ivy. I hate ivy.

Kirk out

Leavis and Butthead, or The Wrong Sort of Snow (Part 1: Intro)

My F R Leavis response to ‘The Two Cultures’ has come.  I expect this is something I ought to have read years ago but never mind, here it is.  I don’t expect to be edified, I expect to be pontificated at: Leavis seems to speak ex cathedra more often than the Pope (especially this current Pope) but I shall try to approach it with an open mind.

Incidentally this reminds me of a ‘joke’ in the Readers’ Digest.  My grandparents used to get this bizarre monthly magazine and you found back issues piled up in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.  I never bothered with the articles but scrolled through reading the cartoons and so-called jokes: the humour in the RD was of such a subdued and conventional kind that I always imagined a retired colonel somewhere in Sussex chortling mirthlessly over his poached egg.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the joke (this is getting more and more like one of Ronnie Corbett’s rambling monologues) – the joke, or perhaps it was intended as an aphorism, was: ‘Some open minds should be closed for repairs.’  I read that forty years ago and I still have no idea what it means (if anything) but I imagine the Colonel harrumphing in approval as he cuts into his poached egg.

Incidentally, does anyone still have poached eggs?  I’ve not had one for years; the only time you see them is in hotels at the breakfast bar.

I started this post last week, since when I have re-read Snow’s original lecture and Leavis’s response.  I am formulating a number of complicated thoughts on this which may take some time and even when they are formulated I don’t suppose there will be space for them all here.  But it’s jolly stimulating.  Basically what I think we’re looking at is a clash of two other kinds of culture; the elitist and the meritocratic.  Snow, high priest of the meritocracy, represents the future and Leavis, pontiff of elitist tradition, knows it – which explains why he reacts as he does.  Basically Leavis is fighting for his life.

But more on this anon when I’ve got all my ducks in a row.  In the meantime I’ve also gone and ordered Leavis’s ‘The Great Tradition’ (get all your books from Alibris and give Amazon the finger; they’re cheap and reliable and they pay their taxes) which I read years ago and have mostly forgotten.  (I started to read it online but I’m no good at reading from a screen.)  He chooses six authors worthy of this Great Tradition, and while the gender balance isn’t too bad (Jane Austen and George Eliot make the cut) his criteria of greatness are so narrow and elitist that one is tempted to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennett and say, ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six great writers; I rather wonder at your knowing any.’

More on this when it comes.

Kirk out

 

How Many Cultures Was It Now?

One of my valued readers, Taskerdunham, has gone and started me off on the whole C P Snow/F R Leavis debate again.  To recap quickly, Snow presented a lecture in 1959 (I was two at the time and had very little culture at all) suggesting that there was a gap between the arts and the sciences in both academia and popular culture.  The advantage, he said, was generally on the side of the scientists because although most of them had read the usual books * most people on the arts side couldn’t even tell you the first law of thermodynamics which, he suggests, is equivalent to asking ‘have you read a book?’

*it was of course much easier to say which were ‘the usual books’ in those days, as indeed Leavis did, at great length (see below.)

Hm.  Let me think: I know the second law of thermodynamics is ‘heat cannot of itself travel from a cooler to a hotter body,’ but the first?  I seem to think it’s something like, ‘whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot it is.’  Yeah, that was it… I have consulted the Oracle and It says the first law is, ‘heat is work and work is heat’ which means energy can’t be created or destroyed.  So there.

Aaaanyway, long story short, dear old F R L who had already written what many see as an elitist account of what constitutes Great Literature, takes huge exception to this and slags Snow off in no uncertain terms.  I have yet to read the full lecture (I’ve gone all scholarly on this and ordered both books, which are due to arrive within a few days) but his criticisms of Snow personally are uncalled-for* and his strictures on the novels somewhat unfair.  I’ll get back to this when I’ve read both lectures but meanwhile Snow’s novels are something I can talk about as I’ve read them a number of times.

*possibly the only thing Thatcher ever said that I agree with is: ‘If they criticise you personally they have shown they do not have a single argument left.’

I first came across Snow by accident.  It was my habit, not really knowing what to read, to browse library shelves and open books at random to see if anything grabbed me.  By chance one day I opened a book called The Masters and read a sentence that said something like: ‘he apologised too much for a man who was often so easy.’  And I thought, ‘here’s a man who understands me’ (I was eighteen at the time.)  Well, he wasn’t – at least not in the way that I thought – and yet he did understand diffident people, so I checked out ‘The Masters’ and read it avidly even though I had no idea that university colleges had Masters or what manner of man these might be.  Nevertheless it engaged me (which ought to say something about Snow’s powers as a writer) and this set me off on the whole ‘Strangers and Brothers‘ series.  (Shortly afterwards in my interview for Nottingham University the panel were very impressed by the inclusion of Snow on my reading list.)

Many people have since pointed out his shortcomings as a novelist.  Yes, he can be sententious; his prose style can be heavy and his characters speak wordily.  But I know of no-one who could begin to make committee meetings exciting or indeed to elicit any interest whatsoever in the election of a Master to an obscure Cambridge college in an eighteen-year-old woman; but Snow does.  His involvement in every nuance, every balance and shift of power and his insight into what each character wants; all these draw us in without the need to resort to grand dramas or intrigues – which means that when an affair does come such as in ‘Corridors of Power’ the drama is all the more effective for being understated.

The world Snow wrote about has gone: it was a world with men at its heart and women round the periphery; in fact the word ‘men’ resounds like a gong through the books.  His is a world we would now call ‘pale, stale and male’ – the world between and after the wars (the novels run from the ‘twenties to the ‘sixties) and although his women are rounded, even powerful characters in their own right, they very much inhabit their own sphere and Snow, both as narrator Lewis Elliott and as author, exhibits an attitude best described as Olympian.  You’d never know there were any women in the professions: when he comes across a young woman with meticulous observation skills he remarks that she would ‘make a good nurse’ and he once disparages a woman scientist as ‘not as good as her husband.’  The world will not forgive him for this and neither will I, but nor will I forget the insights his books offered me.

Next exciting instalment on the – ahem – 55-year-old Two Cultures debate coming up… and I won’t even have a rant this time on how the city of Leicester has forgotten him.

Or will I?  By the way, did anyone at all spot the carefully-concealed April Fool on Monday?

Kirk out

 

Present (and Future?) Tense

Life as an artist is one headache after another.  Just when you think you’ve got things sorted, just when you have a plan, it all goes horribly wrong and like walking through treacle there comes a point where you Can’t Do It Any More.  I woke up this morning around five with a horrible headache and a Quasimodo shoulder up by my left ear (fortunately it was the left shoulder, not the right, ho ho: my left arm is my writing arm, so it’s logical.)  I took a couple of paracetamol and went back to sleep but the headache hovered over my pillow like a bad angel and clobbered me as soon as I woke.  It’s a mysterious thing how our muscles and joints express internal realities: I was talking the other day to someone who has a very tense working life and is now plagued by backache.  I rarely have backache: for me, tension is usually expressed in the neck and shoulders giving me headaches which I interpret as thoughts wanting to reach the brain but being prevented (if you think the brain is the only centre of awareness I would take issue with you: I think each part of the body is a centre of a particular kind of awareness.)  Only if I’m extra-specially tense do I get backaches and even more rarely, stomach aches.

How to engage with society is a big problem for most artists.  Some, like C P Snow, are lucky enough to fit in quite nicely and be able not only to hold down a job and write but also to write about that job (Snow was by turns a barrister, an academic and a civil servant who gave us the phrases ‘corridors of power’ and ‘the two cultures’.)  Then again, he never had to vacuum the sitting-room or run to Sainsbury’s for more marge.*  But for most of us fitting in – which means at the very least the financial imperative to work, and therefore to tick whatever educational and social boxes will persuade someone to hire you – is as problematic as it was for Larkin; ** and even when you are able to write full-time, there’s the problem of getting published.  And that’s a whole-nother way of fitting in (or not.)  When you write full-time the question is refined.  No longer do I ask myself which jobs I am suited for and would be able to do without going off my chump: now, the question is, how far do I write what publishers want (insofar as I know what that is) and how far do I write like myself (insofar as I can tell what that is)?  It’s a constant juggle: if you go too far in the direction of publishers you may be successful but at the cost of ignoring your own uniqueness; if you go too far the other way you risk never being published.  But maybe, just maybe – there’s a third option, which is that in truly being yourself you may produce something publishers didn’t know they wanted but actually really do.

I’ve blogged about C P Snow a few times.  Here’s one of the posts.

*They probably had butter anyway

** For me the problem was not only getting work but keeping it: I’ve had jobs which nearly sent me off my chump with boredom and other jobs where the work wasn’t so bad but I couldn’t fit in socially – and that seemed to be just as important.

Kirk out

On the First April Fools Day My True Love Said to Me

How well I remember our first April Fools Day together!  It was 1993; we’d agreed to get married (which I suppose constitutes ‘getting engaged’ though we didn’t call it that) a few months back.  On April 1st 1993 we were having a drink when I turned and said very seriously: ‘I don’t want to get married any more.’  I’d thought about this for all of ten seconds and the reaction I expected was a moment of reflection before the penny dropped, and then we’d laugh about it.  Oh dear.  No sooner had the words left my tongue than OH looked utterly stricken.  He moistened his lips and whispered ‘Why?’  Oh, how awful I felt then and how utterly inadequate were the triumphant words ‘April Fool!’

I never did that again.

My April Fools have never been that successful, to tell the truth: either I misjudge my audience or I’m not a very good bullshitter.  But I do enjoy a well-constructed spoof in the press or on the radio and OH is off to buy a Guardian to see whether there’s one on offer or whether like everyone else they’ve decided that Brexit is such an omnishambles that no practical joke comes close.  Oh!  Would that Dave and Nige would just jump out of a hat and say ‘April Fool!  We never had a referendum after all!’  But of course like everything else what gives joy to one half of the country will enrage the other half.  No-one can win.

One of my favourite novels begins with an April Fool.  ‘A Suitable Boy‘ by Vikram Seth opens with one of Lata’s brothers telling the family that she is engaged to a very unsuitable boy indeed: when everyone gets in an uproar he calmly tell them all to check the date.  This April Fool prefigures a genuine near-tragedy in which Lata, a Hindu, falls in love with a Muslim boy.  His family don’t care but hers would disown her, and in the end she sadly breaks it off.   (Actually now that I look it up A Suitable Boy begins with a wedding, so the April Fool scene must come after that.)  Why has no-one made a film or box set of this yet?  It’s a brilliant book – and they’ve just issued a left-handed version too, which is great.

That’s enough April Fools for today.  And I haven’t even tried to slip one in to this post.

Or have I?

Kirk out

 

Dead Space for the Unexpected

Once upon a time, so I’m given to understand, it was popular in business to leave a ‘dead space for the unexpected’, an opening where time could be given to something unforeseen which might come up.  Great idea, you might think.  Very progressive.  Cogitating outside the container: well done that (wo)man.  But I couldn’t help thinking that it’s in the nature of the unexpected to be, well, unexpected.  You can no more schedule a space for it than the dinosaurs could pencil in the time of their own extinction.  The unexpected, when it comes, can be a tiny thing that fits into a margin or a tsunami-like event that overturns your entire schedule, your company and even your world.  It will almost certainly be something you never imagined, which is why no dead space could ever accommodate it.

I had a memory twingling away at the back of my head, that there was a short story I’d read years ago called Dead Space for the Unexpected.  I googled it and lo! one of the first things I found was this blog post, in reading which I learned…

…today’s new word, Novum, which means a plausible scientific invention in a work of SF; like Ray Bradbury’s hand-held communication devices or – well, anything in Black Mirror.

So that’s me done for today.  I can go back to bed now

Kirk out