On The Twiddliness of Things

I was just wondering what to write about when my eye lit on a notebook with an Escher drawing on the front. Twiddliness! I thought. So that’s where I’ll begin. OH has a book called ‘Godel, Escher, Bach‘ which is on this very subject. Godel was a mathematician and there are similarities between him, Escher and Bach, all of them being inclined to turn things upside down, inside out and round and round. Bach can take a simple piece of music, play it a few times, turn it upside down and sideways and then chop it up; Escher does the same thing with images, producing optical illusions where fish turn into birds and staircases, like share prices, go up as well as down. I’m not sure what Godel does because I skipped the section on him (shame!) but there you are. Maybe if it wasn’t so hot I’d be able to say something more coherent on the subject…

https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-escher-stairs-image6306396

Yesterday turned out to be not such a bad day in the end; after a depressing morning I went for a walk (always a good plan) and sat in my easy chair for the afternoon. I use my easy chair – in reality a garden chair because an armchair won’t fit in my study – for periods of reflective writing, or perhaps no writing at all, just staring at clouds and daydreaming. I don’t actually do enough of this – I suspect most of us don’t – and it’s very valuable. Just to sit and allow thoughts to emerge as they will – or not – is one of the best ways a writer can spend her/his time, provided that the rest of the time you actually get some work done. And lo! while I was sitting in reflection I decided to check my phone for emails and there sat my weekly update on freelance writing jobs. I subscribe to this just on the offchance even though most of the jobs are not suitable for me, and there I found a novel-writing competition. I sort of have a novel – well, I have one in development, and since they only required the first 5000 words I sent them off. If they’re interested they want another 5000 in September – which I have – and after that I’ll have to work pretty damn fast if they want the whole thing. But that’s how I rock.

So you see, twiddling your thumbs can be highly productive. The joys of twiddliness!

Kirk out

Utopiary

Utopiary is a word I coined a few years back to describe the kind of leaf-perfect tree-moulding that goes on in some gardens. In fact you can usually measure the wealth of a household by the amount of topiary because most of us are too busy just trying to get the hedge trimmed and the lawn cut (while also respecting no-mow May) to be remotely interested in sculpting our trees. Anyway, I don’t like topiary very much; I think trees and bushes should find their own shape rather than having one imposed on them.

None of which is what I was going to write about today. I’m in a real short story phase right now and I’ve started another one which tells the story of a stoning from the point of view of a man waiting to take part in one. I was shocked to discover that this barbaric practice is still legal in fifteen countries of the world, even if it doesn’t always take place. Sometimes there is no legal process whatsoever; the poor woman (it’s usually a woman) is simply sentenced to death for some alleged crime and in Pakistan since adultery is hard to prove the courts are able to ‘use their instincts’. In a deeply misogynistic society you can just imagine how that’s going to play out.

The story was inspired by an article in the latest Granta magazine which plopped onto my doormat this morning and was eagerly snatched up. Wimbledon being over, we’re back to doing the digital detox thing from Friday night to Saturday dinnertime, so I really needed something new to read. The theme of the issue is Interiors and it begins with A Series of Rooms Occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell who, in the absence of Jeffrey Epstein, is waiting in a detention centre to be tried for the crime of supplying young women to be raped by him and other men. I’m not saying we should go easy on Ghislaine if she’s guilty of these crimes, but growing up with a father like Maxwell can’t have been a picnic, and according to this article the place where she’s detained, the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, is ‘the largest and most dysfunctional’ in the US. I’m not saying our prisons are exemplary but they seem so much worse in the States.

Anyway, I’ve sent off a couple more stories this week, keeping the momentum going, and another one or two will be ready in the next couple of weeks. I’m finding that the momentum is more important than the results, in a way. I’m going to sit in the sun now – for once we have a hot sunny day here. Yay!

Kirk out

Milkman by Anna Burns

I bought this Booker Prize-winning novel a couple of years ago and read it in the space of a few days. Nothing I’ve ever read has given me a clearer idea of what it was like – particularly for a young woman – to live through the Troubles in 1970’s Northern Ireland. Not that Ireland is named, for in this book nothing and no-one is named. The central character associates with many people in the community; Third Brother in law, Oldest Sister, Wee Sisters, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and Real Milkman, so-called to differentiate him from the Milkman of the title, who as it turns out is no milkman at all.

Nor are neighbourhoods named. There are the ‘people over the street’ (Unionists), the Nation over the Water (mainland Britain) and dangerous spots like the Ten Minute Area, so-called because it takes ten minutes to cross. The main character – whose name we do not know – is stalked by an IRA fighter who without saying anything at all definite, appropriates her as his girlfriend. This is a very gossippy neighbourhood where you have only to be seen talking to a man to be practically engaged to him; before long she is supposed to be this guy’s girlfriend and is approached by a gaggle of other such girlfriends in the toilets and given lessons on how to dress (always skirts, never trousers. It’s your duty to look nice for him, etc – but again, nothing is really said, only hinted.) There is no help from the authorities in this society; if you are injured you don’t go to hospital because the police hang around hospitals, and if you are in trouble the last people you go to are the police.

Milkman shows us how an innocent person with no interest in the Troubles can nevertheless be sucked in to assisting one side or the other. The will of the community – and by extension, the paramilitaries – is paramount, and in the end she is only released from the appalling grip of the so-called ‘Milkman’ by his death.

Here’s a good review in the Guardian.

What have you been reading lately? If you’ve come across something good I’d like to hear about it.

Kirk out

6 Miles

It may not seem much, but I was inordinately pleased with myself for cycling six miles yesterday. It was a lovely ride out of Loughborough to the North-East along mainly country roads, though coming back into town on the A60 was less fun as it’s a single-carriageway road with lots of traffic. I’ve never been a competitive person; if I ever try to compete I always lose, not necessarily because I’m bad at whatever it is, but because my heart isn’t in it. I don’t see the point of winning for its own sake because in the end, what does it really mean? It means you were better at that particular activity on that particular day against those particular competitors and in those prevailing conditions. I don’t wish to dismiss the achievements of anyone (and if by any chance Andy Murray should win Wimbledon I’ll have a completely different take on this) but winning per se has never appealed to me. Overcoming odds, surmounting obstacles, beating your own shortcomings – yes, I can see the point of that, but competing with others seems largely meaningless. Suppose I’d been in a competition yesterday with someone to see who could cycle the furthest; what would it mean if I beat them or if they beat me? Would it mean one of us was ‘better’ than the other? No. Yesterday I was feeling very tired; hence the six miles was for me a great achievement – but someone else might not be so tired, so they’d do it easily and go on to do double that distance. Comparisons, in short, are odious, and whilst sport is undoubtedly good for the soul, too much emphasis on winning emphatically is not.

Lecture over. I was going to write about something else entirely today, and now I’ve forgotten what it was. Oh yes, books. Under the radar there’s a significant ‘trade’ in swapping books for free. Shops have shelves of them outdoors; villages have old phone boxes full of them, churches and town halls have them and friends have them. Lately I’ve been swapping books with a friend, who has lent me Shuggie Bain (which I hated) and The Shadow King (which I mostly enjoyed); and recently, Amsterdam, another Booker Prize winner (from 1998) by Ian McEwan. I have no strong opinions about Ian McEwan so I approached this with an open mind and found it – well, not bad but somewhat underwhelming. The title refers to the practice of legal euthanasia available in that city (for a price) and a feud between two friends, one a newspaper editor and another a composer, who make an agreement following the painful death of a mutual friend to each take the other to Amsterdam to end their life, should they be terminally ill. None of the characters are particularly agreeable; the newspaper editor is trying, Murdoch-style, to make a respectable broadsheet profitable by publishing the ‘scandal’ – already outdated – of a cabinet minister’s crossdressing. But the tide of opinion is against him and he loses his job. Meanwhile the composer, trying desperately to finish his symphony before a concert in Amsterdam, goes away to the Lakes to clear his head. He’s just getting an amazing idea when he sees a woman in an altercation with a man, but instead of intervening he carries on composing in his head and rushes back to get it down on paper. He is justly punished for this act of selfishness; not only does the man turn out to be the Lakeland Rapist but the crowning theme of his concerto turns out to be a cheap rip-off of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Both friends meet in Amsterdam, their careers over, each with the intention of bumping the other off. I’ll let you guess the outcome.

I found Amsterdam entertaining but for 1998 quite dated. It was a very male world – all the women referred to as ‘girls’ and defined by their appearance – in fact it could just as well have been written in the ’60’s. It’s also quite a slight book – only 150 pages – and lacks either depth or breadth. Still, it’s a load more fun than Shuggie Bain – but then again, so are most things. Including Dostoevsky.

Happy Tuesday. We’ve got some better weather here – hurray!

Kirk out

Mainly Mania

I’ve been a bit manic the last few days; not so much physically as mentally. I think it’s the sun; when I taught yoga for mental health a lot of bipolar people tended to become manic in the summer. It’s understandable because everything else is manic; the insects and the plants, the weeds – oh, the weeds! – everything’s up and doing and it’s hard not to join in. I wish I were physically manic though; I’d be able to lose a bit of weight, but as it is the mind is buzzing but the body slumps: I have the brain of a bee and the body of a slug.

It’s hard to concentrate on days like these. You want to do everything at once; it seems that if you don’t do it now, it won’t get done; so this morning I activated my birthday Google Play voucher and started downloading audio books like there’s no tomorrow. I want to learn modern Greek so I can put it side by side with Ancient Greek, and Italian and Anglo-Saxon (though I don’t think there’s an audio book for that) and ‘read’ the rest of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and – and – everything. I’m just getting used to audio books; in general I prefer the physical page and as I’ve said I can’t deal with ebooks at all (though I did read Edwin Drood, what there is of it, on Project Gutenberg.) The result of all this activity is, predictably, burnout and depression; it’s a cycle I know well. Therefore I started the day with meditation, which has slowed me down a bit, and if it comes back I shall maybe play some slow music or do some breathing exercises.

Aaaaand breathe!

I would never claim to have full-blown manic depression or bipolar syndrome – or depression or psychosis or any of the problems I experience from time to time – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They’re just a taste, really, of what other people have to deal with on a daily basis, and I can only imagine what that’s like. Fortunately I have techniques to manage these experiences so I can usually bring myself back to a state of balance. In any case it’s quite damp here this morning, so perhaps that’ll settle me too. And now if you’ll excuse me I’ll get back to my audio books and Greek and Italian and Anglo-Saxon…

Kirk out

ReJoyce! It’s Bloomsday!

Today, the day after my birthday, is a special celebration in Ireland; June 16th is Bloomsday, or the day when all the action in Ulysses is set, so-called after the main character Leopold Bloom. I have to fess up: I’ve never been a great fan of Joyce. Undoubted genius though he was (and I say this as one who appreciates that, not as one who’s been told it) I find the longer novels completely unreadable. I struggled through Ulysses, only because I had to, and foundered on the impenetrable rocks of Finnegan’s Wake. It’s a noble experiment to try to write a novel that stands outside time but in the end it’s unreadable. I do like the shorter works though and I especially appreciate his puns, my favourite of which is ‘funferal’, his word for a traditional wake.

But I like the fact that all Ireland celebrates Bloomsday. It’s not just some hook-up for the chattering classes but something which engages the whole community because Joyce was himself working class. More than that; there’s something in Celtic cultures which means that the arts run across classes and engage everyone, rather than being a mainly middle-class thing; I guess it’s a bit like the Rebus events in Edinburgh.

Here’s what’s on offer this year in Dublin.

Why can’t we do the same here in England? If you tell most ‘ordinary’ people about celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday they will groan; because the Shakespeare they’ve been subjected to is like this scene in Dead Poets Society. This makes me roar and gnash my teeth, because it SO doesn’t have to be like that. Shakespeare is – and always was – universal. He’s for everyone. He’s like a pantomime; he’s got the cross-dressing and the knob gags as well as the sublime love interest and the yearning; he’s got everything. And the idea that we should all dress up and pay a fortune and sit still and quiet and listen earnestly is Just Not Right. It should be more like a pantomime with shouting and wailing and ‘oh yes he is! – Oh no he isn’t’ and crying and laughing. It should be joyous. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘Shakespeare taken serious by many; Shakespeare taken joyous by a few.’ The Celtic cultures do this so much better than we do because they don’t have any truck with pretension.

*sigh*

Ah well. I may log onto some of the Bloomsday events since they’re all online. In the meantime, I had a good birthday yesterday; no cake (I’m not a fan of cake and it would be a serious candle challenge) but some sitting in the garden, an excellent bike ride and pizza in the evening followed by strawberries and lemon sorbet. I love sorbet.

And that’s today. Happy Bloomsday. Happy Bloomsday to us, Happy Bloomsday to us, Happy Bloomsday dear Dublin…

Kirk out

Gegrunden Zu Einem Halt

It has been said that 99% of success is just showing up; if so I ought to be mega-successful by now because half my days are spent just showing up at my desk and hoping that something will happen. I’ve done a bit of work this week on some short stories I’m writing but after that I just ground to a halt. I really hope there’s something amiss with my thyroxine levels because otherwise I’m facing a deep, persistent and unexplained tiredness that just won’t quit. I manage all right in the mornings but in the afternoons I struggle to keep awake.

In the meantime I’ve been reading. I’ve finished the Millicent Fawcett book and I’m onto Ian Rankin’s latest, A Song for the Dark Times. (SPOILERS AHEAD) This is very enjoyable so far, though you can’t help wondering how much more life is left in poor old Rebus; he’s coping right now but he’s had to move to a ground-floor flat because of his COPD and his car is hardly healthier than its owner. In this story his daughter is accused of murdering her partner and Rebus heads up to Tongue, on the North-East coast of Scotland, to get up everyone’s nose in his inimitable way. Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are embroiled in the unexplained murder of a wealthy Saudi student, a tangled story in which Cafferty has also become embroiled and which seems somehow to connect to the events in Tongue.

I was wondering whether Rankin still had it – not that there’s any reason to suspect his powers as a writer have diminished, but because Rebus is so much a part of what he does. The characters of Clarke and Fox are interesting, the dynamic between them is engaging and the storylines as good as ever, but there’s no-one like Rebus – and Rebus surely can’t live much longer. Mind you, we thought that about Leonard Cohen – and then he went and released an album after his death, so we can’t give up on Rebus just yet. Anyway, it’s recommended for any fans and whatever doubts I may have had about it are thoroughly dispelled.

Today I’m going to take another stab at my short stories, then I’m going out for lunch and this afternoon I shall probably grind to a ….

Kirk out

But What Does God Think?

I spent much of yesterday reading Millicent Fawcett’s ‘Short History of Women’s Suffrage.’ It’s a fascinating read with some interesting (and depressing) parallels with our own time. It is astonishing to discover just how many times the issue of women’s suffrage was up before Parliament and how many times, in spite of having widespread support, it failed to pass into law. Gladstone stands out as a particular weasel; having indicated he would support the issue when in government, he then proceeded to campaign against it as Prime Minister. Remind you of anyone? Fawcett was in the thick of this debate and knew major players such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau as well as the female opponents of women’s suffrage, whose position she neatly eviscerates. It’s exactly like Phyllis Schlafly who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the US: it’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

But for all its obvious frustration and anger, the book is not a rant. It’s a very measured account whilst also being well-argued and forceful. The most striking thing about her opponents is that they nearly all relied on some inside knowledge of what God thought about it all. Women were divinely ordained to stay at home and raise children; we were not formed for cogent thought, etc etc etc and this was the way God wanted it. As Mary Wollstonecraft observed a century and a half earlier, ‘I have not found among the disbelievers in organised religion a single opponent of the principle of equal rights for men and women.’

There were a lot of surprising things in this book; such as that the Isle of Man was the first place in the UK to give women the vote and that in many places until the mid-19th century women were allowed to vote by default – simply because there was no law that said they couldn’t. The book is sad because it was written in 1912 when Fawcett thought we were on the eve of obtaining the vote, not realising it would take four years of senseless slaughter to change people’s minds; she did, however, live to see it enacted into law and the first women MP’s take their place in Parliament.

Warning – next section contains spoilers.

In other news, we finished watching Jimmy McGovern’s excellent series Time, starring Sean Bean as a deeply remorseful alcoholic serving four years for killing a cyclist while driving drunk. Four years is not long but the courts took into account that he handed himself into police, accepted responsibility for what he’d done and pleaded guilty in court. The drama begins with him being transported in a prison van alongside two maniacs who are banging the walls and screaming at each other, and in the beginning I thought it was going to be a violent drama which ended with him being killed or else somehow sucked into the system. Not a bit of it. It’s a steep learning curve but he learns how to stand up to bullies and spends a lot of time talking to young offenders about what he’s done. He teaches a fellow-inmate to read and after two years has so impressed the staff that he’s allowed out for a day to speak at a conference – unsupervised. But now it’s payback time: the guy who helped him defeat the bully wants the favour returned, and it’s a big one. After the conference he’s to stop off, pick up some drugs and deliver them to the prison. This is the turning-point of the drama – after delivering his speech to the conference on the need to live a good life, he can’t do it. He gets back in the taxi, goes back to the prison and tells the guy it’s no go. Ten minutes later they come for him, bearing snooker balls wrapped inside socks, but they guy he taught to read and write saves him, though not before he gets one eye socket bashed in.

The prison is often brutal, an environment where the best recourse to getting beaten up is to shut up because if you get a name as a grass life will only get worse. But there are beacons of light in the darkness, and in the end he finds redemption because he is willing to face up to what he has done. The drama ends with him meeting the mother of the man he killed, both of them trying to find a way forward.

There’s a sub-plot too, featuring prison officer Eric McNally, a ‘firm-but-fair’ bloke who actually does get sucked into the system because his son, in another prison, is being threatened. In order to save him he resorts to smuggling drugs into the prison and in the end he’s caught. He and Mark swap over; as Mark is waiting to get out, Eric is waiting to be transported to another prison to serve his time there.

It’s cathartic – and there aren’t many dramas you can say that about nowadays.

Kirk out

I Demand to Have a Fluffy Thing

It’s interesting to compare the vocabularies of different languages. Spanish, for example, has two words for ‘to be’, one permanent and one temporary, though Inuit does not, contrary to popular opinion, have ten words for snow. But what is true is that the English have lots of words for rain: drizzle, mizzle, downpour, stair rods, cats and dogs, shower, light shower, scattered shower, torrent. pelting, tempestuous… I could go on and on like the rain itself has done this past month, and the reason is obvious; we get a lot of rain. Not only that, the rain is unpredictable and very variable, hence we have a large rain-soaked vocabulary. One of my favourite quotes about rain was heard at a bus stop somewhere in Yorkshire after someone remarked that the rain had come earlier than forecast: ‘Course, this in’t the proper rain. This is just condensation.’

George Orwell’s theory of language posits that without a word for something we are unable to have a concept of it. As Blackadder says, the Germans are evil and heartless because they have no word for ‘fluffy’. But I would dispute that – not the fluffy thing, the other thing* – because there are plenty of things we go around noticing but cannot yet name.

*although possibly also the fluffy thing

Douglas Adams’ Meaning of Liff gives words to things that have no name as yet. It’s an interesting linguistic exercise but it’s mainly comic; the comedy arising from the fact that we recognise the things but just haven’t named them yet. Such as the ‘garden sprinkler’ thing your mouth does when you open it at a certain angle (‘Skoonsprout’) or the way cars all slow down and drive in formation when a police car is among them ‘Grimbister.’

But once we start to properly think about these things we immediately invent words for them. As a child I felt that the broaching of a new jar of jam or Marmite required some sort of ceremony; the surface was so smooth and perfect, I wanted to say something as I dipped my knife in for the first time. So I invented the word ‘pervise’ and solemnly intoned ‘I pervise this jar of Marmite.’ Later I discovered something in my eye which only half seemed to be there, something I couldn’t explain and so christened it ‘boodies and frooths’ which summed up the uncanny feeling they gave me. I told my mother they were monsters but it wasn’t until I grew up that I discovered they were floaters in the eye.

In his book Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker shows us all the minutiae of life that we are only subliminally aware of. I thought I was the only person obsessed by the handrail on the Tube escalator but Baker is too; he describes in great detail how the handrail moves slightly faster than the stairs so that you have to keep adjusting where your hand is. It’s such a relief to read a book by someone as obsessed with minutiae as I am; who notices the tiny gap between lift and floor or the bit of the handrail where it seems to be stitched together like a rough wound, which if you watch for long enough comes round again and again. Here is a book detailing all the things I ever wanted to think about but was told weren’t important and in the end didn’t have time for. It is a joy.

I’m sort of groping towards a point here but I can’t yet pinpoint exactly what it is. In other news we’ve been watching the Netflix series Unorthodox, based on a true story of a woman’s escape from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s very gripping. And before that we were enthralled by Little Fires Everywhere on Amazon Prime (yes, I know I hate Amazon but it wasn’t my account) the story of the unravelling of a supposedly inclusive community in small-town America.

Kirk out

Cassocks, Hassocks or Tussocks?

Or mattocks? This morning OH got confused between cassocks and hassocks (as we all do from time to time) and I found it very funny. But why? It’s not always amusing to confuse words so why are some funnier than others? Every comic writer knows there are some words which are intrinsically funny and some which just fall flat. Victoria Wood was a prime example of someone who knew the comic power of language and amplified the argot she grew up with in a way we immediately recognise. But what makes a word funny? Why are hassocks and cassocks funny? Is it because they sound a bit rude? Is it the juxtaposition of the ecclesiastical and the naughty that amuses? I think we should be told.

But I don’t know if comic writers are the best people to tell us. Victoria Wood is sadly no longer around but in any case the process of writing, the choosing of words, is instinctive. You don’t consult a thesaurus and make a shortlist of the best words; you juggle a few in your mind and pick the one that suggests itself. You might say the words choose you – which is in fact what a lot of writers do say, not least Winnie-the-Pooh:

‘They (the shillings) wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them. It’s the way to write poetry, letting things come.’

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/329034-they-wanted-to-come-in-after-the-pounds-explained-pooh

Of course lots of authors, mainly of the egoistical, entitled kind, pretend to be in charge of everything they write. I say bollocks. Hassocks to you, I say; that is totally not true. No writer is consciously in charge of everything they write, or if they are, what they write will be total cassocks. Things come to you. Yes, you choose what to write and what to leave out; yes, you are in charge of editing and organising the work. But you cannot and never will be able to control what comes to you and what does not come. That is the great mystery of art.

At this point I am reminded irresistibly of Will Self. I haven’t heard him say this but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he believes himself to be totally in control of his work. He packs his sentences with so many clever ideas that it’s rather like eating one of those disgusting Victorian roasts with one bird stuffed inside another. You just get a flavour of turkey when you realise there’s pheasant inside that and snipe to follow with just a hint of skylark to finish. It’s completely indigestible. There’s no joy in his work and very little instinct; it’s all ideas – clever, yes, but in my mind devoid of creative flow.

To some extent I sympathise. It’s not the easiest thing to admit to not being in control of your work; to some people it makes you sound weak or lazy – as if you’re waiting in a deckchair leafing through a magazine and waiting for inspiration to strike – though nothing could be further from the truth; the clear and focussed attention needed to allow creativity is anything but idleness. And it takes some humility to acknowledge that your best ideas come from the beyond: as JK Rowling said, ‘Harry Potter strolled fully-formed into my mind on a train.’ She was on her way from Manchester and by the time she got to London many of the characters had taken shape.

Now that’s my kind of inspiration. Some days all I get are tussocks. Or do I mean mattocks?

Balls.

Kirk out