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.

Silence

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

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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

Shovelling Sand into a Box

I found today’s writing quote very helpful.  Yesterday I got through a fair amount of work, including 1400 words of the novel, not a bad word-count for an afternoon – but was I happy?  No.  The last thing I wrote in my diary was: ‘Why is writing so horrible, why don’t I enjoy it more?’

I guess when I write a first draft, particularly of a novel (this is not so true of short stories and not at all true of poetry where the beginnings are the most exciting part) I have no clue where I’m going.  I simply write what comes – and often, what comes seems either irrelevant or completely mad.  I was once compelled to write a scene where Father Christmas turns out to be a convict in disguise.  He meets Jack and Jill and gives them presents of ice and snow; eventually Jill penetrates his disguise and the scene ends with Father Christmas saying ‘Ho ho ho!’ in an evil and yet hopeless way.  I wrote that scene twenty years ago and I still have no idea what it means.  Maybe one day it’ll come to me.

One thing that is particularly scary, especially for the new writer, is the thought that you may reveal yourself in ways you are not aware of but which the reader will notice.  For example, at a writers’ group I once attended there was a male writer of crime fiction.  He read his stories out regularly and they made us all very uncomfortable as in every one a woman was horribly murdered or mutilated.  Eventually when this was  pointed out to him, that all his female characters came to a very sticky end at the hands of the men, it was a real tumbleweed moment: there was a horrible silence as it dawned on him that he was acting out revenge fantasies in his fiction.

So today’s writing quote was this: ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that I can make a sand-castle later.’

https://writerswrite.co.za/quotable-shannon-hale/

This is very helpful when you are writing a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers where every chapter is as long as the previous two added together and you have no clue what you’re doing.

Kirk out

 

 

 

Fairyhell Marriage

Millions of words have been written about Princess Diana and even more pictures printed but we had to wait until after her death to learn that Andrew Morton’s biography  was based largely on tapes she recorded secretly with the author.

It’s a story to break your heart: a classic Grimm fairytale with enough evil stepmothers, ugly sisters and neglectful husbands to fill an entire library.  Diana’s married life – and possibly her life even before marriage – was utterly devoid of human warmth and compassion: according to her account during her worst hours the Royal Family, her husband and even her own sister failed to support her.  Buckle up and get on with it seems to have been the order of the day: but what must have made an intolerable situation far worse was having to present a smiling face to the world.  The world needed to believe in the fairytale of a commoner marrying a prince and living happily-ever-after: it was a fantasy in which the hapless couple were forced to be complicit as they were not only followed everywhere by cameras but cross-examined in interview after probing interview.  Diana must have felt she was carrying the weight of the whole world on her shoulders.  There were times when she wanted to cancel the wedding but once announced the preparations were like a rocket already launched and could not be stopped.  Imagine: it’s hard enough for a commoner to cancel a traditional wedding once preparations are in train; if you add into the mix the cold, inflexible royal protocols and an unprecedented level of press intrusion, you have a recipe for 360-degree hell.  On her wedding day she was sick with bulimia (who wouldn’t be?) and wanted to cut her wrists.  Had her marriage been happy the rest might have been tolerable, but it wasn’t: she had little in the way of love and support from her husband as he was always more interested in Camilla.

Diana must have been made of steel, because she not only survived this hell but made a role for herself, a role which seemed genuinely to use her gifts and talents.  She had the common touch and an ability to connect with ordinary people, particularly those suffering from AIDS and injured by land-mines.  But sadly the press never left her alone and although it’s not clear that they were directly responsible for her death, they surely must bear part of the blame.

The story of Diana has many possible narratives and in fairness her version is just that, a version.  I have no reason to doubt what she says, but every witness is partial and there are always other points of view: in a sense Charles was as much of a victim as Diana, being unable to marry the woman he loved and forced to wed for the sake of the succession.  In the past he’d have been able to carry on with Camilla in secret whilst presenting a respectable public face but modern levels of scrutiny make this impossible.  Besides nowadays the royals, like the rest of us, are supposed to marry for love.

The story also illustrates a paradigm shift, as pointed out in The Queen: a ‘shift in values’ between the old stiff-upper-lip of royal protocol and the more human and compassionate face which Diana represented.

I hope no future royal princess will receive that level of intrusion because we have no right to demand it of them.  They are not there to fulfill our dreams, we need to do that for ourselves.

Here’s the film:

https://bit.ly/2BDYj4Y

Kirk out

 

 

 

Treadmills, Victorian Punishments

In the course of my novel writing I had reason to look up Victorian prison punishments (just because I’m using one as a metaphor) and was once again reminded of the horrors of these dark satanic gaols.  But then I got to wondering whether they might be an improvement on their predecessors because, however forbidding the buildings and however self-righteously punitive the punishments, there was at least an attempt to deter and rehabilitate rather than merely to inflict pain.  Then again the sheer bureaucratic vindictiveness of a treadmill which is horribly hard work but produces nothing, or a handle which has to be turned a certain number of times a day to no purpose (and which can be tightened at will by the guards; hence the name ‘screws’) give the lie to that theory.

We’re all in a prison of some kind; and at the weekend I went to see the classic ’80’s film 9 to 5.  I hadn’t seen this when it came out and I was struck by how much things had changed, both for the better and also very much for the worse.  Three women work in the office of a corrupt and misogynistic boss: one a recent divorcee (Jane Fonda), one happily married but blonde and busty (Dolly Parton) and one a highly efficient single mother who really should be running the place (Lily Tomlin).  After a series of insults, power grabs, unwanted sexual advances and hourly put-downs, the women get together and decide to change things.  Rather than merely getting drunk and fantasising about it (though they do that too) they take action.  When one of them accidentally poisons the boss by putting rat poison in his coffee they kidnap him from the hospital and tie him up in his own home, holding him hostage while they take over the office.  Of course it unravels in the end but everything turns out for the best.  It’s a great feel-good movie and very funny.  So what’s changed?

Well, the acceptability of sexual harrassment has changed (though perhaps not its prevalence, where some men think they can get away with it).  The position of women has changed.  We now have laws about equal pay; there are more women in positions of power, and so on.  So far so good.  What’s not so good is the way people treat each other: in spite of the boss’s contempt for his female subordinates everyone was far more polite than we are nowadays.  And there was more time: back then the idea of nine-to-five was the epitome of slavery but nowadays people are doing ten or twelve-hour days and answering emails in their sleep.  Not so good.

So my question is this: is it inevitable that when some things get better other things will get worse?

Two of the three actors turn up decades later in the excellent Grace and Frankie.  I absolutely love this series and there’s so much to say about it that it’ll have to wait for its own blog post: suffice it to say that it’s a comedy of old age, a sort of geriatric Friends.  One of the creators of that classic series, Marta Kaufmann, is involved in this story of two octogenarian women whose husbands have been conducting a gay love-affair for decades and who have recently come out and set up house as a couple.  Thrown together by circumstances, Grace and Frankie rub along and fall out as often as you’d expect a work-driven WASP and an aged hippy to fall out.  The series is broad-based and while Grace and Frankie are the centre, we also follow the story of the two husbands (equally diverse but far more compatible) and the grown-up children.  There’s a lot of comedy about ageing which is neither patronising nor in denial and it’s worth seeing for the San Francisco beach house location alone, so if you have Netflix I urge you to watch it now.

Look, it didn’t need its own blog post after all!

Kirk out

What is This Blog About?

I read just this morning some advice which suggested a blogger should always make it clear what their blog is about.  But this presents me with some difficulty because when it comes down to it, what actually is this blog about?

It’s easy to say ‘it’s a blog about writing’ – and in the main it is; but it’s about so much more than that.  The one thing I discovered when I began to blog regularly was that it is impossible to stick to one subject.  The mind lists where it will; there are many things I’m interested in and I want to share those interests with readers.  I want to connect: I want to philosophise and politicise and talk about anything I damn well please, from bricklaying (yes, I did that once) to road materials testing (also done) to knitting and poetry and short stories and poems about knitting and road materials and bricklaying (I haven’t yet written about the last two but knitting has proved a fertile metaphor for many things.)

I also want to blog about culture: I want to organise my responses to films and TV programmes, I want to write book reviews and share the poetry I love.  So in the main, it’s about connection.  Only connect would be a good alternative title for the blog if ‘A Writer’s Life’ weren’t clearer and more likely to – ahem – connect with readers.

One of the writing quotes I read recently was: ‘A writer knows a little about everything and is an expert on nothing.’  Now I think that’s exactly true: I am compelled to find out about all manner of things and would be just as engaged in finding out how fork-lift trucks work (indeed I have had that conversation with a friend who works at JCB) as with hearing about how other writers write.  I’m fascinated by these processes and not with any conscious intent of ‘doing research’ for writing: they just interest me.  As Chaucer said (or at least the Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) ‘all human life lies within the artist’s scope.’  So there it is; all human life lies within this blog’s scope.

What is this blog about?  Everything.

What am I an expert on?  Nothing.

Except perhaps on writing…

And just for fun, here’s today’s writing cartoon:

Kirk out

No Woman

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film ‘Yes Man’.  It’s a highly enjoyable story of a man who says no to life; who never goes anywhere or does anything and is stuck in the same old job as a loans officer for a bank.  Then one day he goes to an empowerment seminar where he is persuaded to enter a ‘contract’ agreeing to say yes to everything – literally everything – that comes along.  It’s very different from the book; but what struck me about both book and film was this: just how impossible would it be to do this as a woman?  Totally, right?  Can you imagine – a woman going round saying yes to everything?  So maybe the best option for women would be to practise saying no, since traditionally women are supposed to be amenable, open, charming and supportive.  So what would ‘No Woman’ look like? *

Of course you’d have to be discriminating otherwise you’d have to say no to a good job offer or a gift or a holiday or some other opportunity.  But suppose you started saying no to all the things you really want to say no to?

I did this the other week.  If I have a weakness it’s a tendency to take on jobs which need doing and which no-one else wants to do.  If there’s a need in an organisation, some part of me feels the urge to rush in and Save the Day.  I’ve got better at this as time goes by and I no longer volunteer for things that don’t play to my strengths – but if jobs seem to be the sort of thing I’d be good at, I generally persuade myself that this is The Thing To Do.

A case in point: recently at a meeting, a vacancy was announced.  Immediately my ‘save the day’ urge kicked in – but I’ve learned caution so instead of volunteering I raised my hand and asked what the job entailed.  I deliberately and quite specifically said as a prelude to the question, ‘I’m not volunteering to do this.’  And what happened?  One week later I heard that no fewer than three people had said, ‘isn’t it great that Liz is going to be _______?.’  This got my back up somewhat and I said a very firm No right there and then.  It particularly annoyed me that my words hadn’t been heard; all that had registered was that I’d shown an interest, and that people leapt from that to thinking I’d agreed to do it.

All this is in stark contrast to the Quakers.  When there is a job to be done the Nominations Committee (of which I am a member) sit and reflect on who might be asked to undertake that role.  This can be a process which may evolve over weeks or months; or a name might come up immediately.  That person is then asked; whereupon they go away and reflect on it, again over a period of weeks or months.  They then come back to the Noms Committee with a response.  At no time is any pressure put on anyone to say yes.  The Quaker attitude is that jobs exist for people, not people for jobs.

Hmm.  Now, what else can I say ‘no’ to today?

Kirk out

(Or not…)

*  No Bob Marley jokes please