A Sort of Report-Thingy

Right, my dears, I’m recovered from conference now and have spent the last few days preparing my novella Seven Days for a competition.  It’s the first thing I ever wrote so if it wins it’ll be appropriate for it to be the first major thing that gets published.

So, Labour conference.  What can I say?  It was absolutely fan-bloody-tastic.  Amazing.  Wonderful.  United, uplifting, powerful.  Let me elucidate.

The first day wasn’t so good.  I started off tired and got tireder as after a very pleasant and productive women’s conference we went back to our hotel room.  The hotel in itself was a terrific surprise: first opened in 1914 it is vast and sumptuous with huge rooms decorated in splendid style.  It oozes faded grandeur and is the perfect antidote to antiseptic, anonymous, have-a-nice-day boxes that you usually get.  I don’t want to have a nice day, thank you very much.  When I do I’ll let you know.  Anyway, this was our hotel room:

IMG_0693[1]

and here’s the hotel website (apparently it was the subject of a TV documentary last year):
https://www.britanniahotels.com/hotels/the-adelphi-hotel-liverpool

The first night I only got four hours’ sleep as not only was I totally wired but the city was unbelievably noisy!  The hotel is slap-bang in the centre of Liverpool and the aftermath of a football match conspired with karaoke bars and general merriment to create a racket which went on till about 4 am.  After that the sirens and street cleaners started up, so I lay awake until about 6.30 when I dozed for about 5 minutes before having to get up.  So the day wasn’t brilliant, but we got through it and arrived at an understanding of what was needed in order to follow the debates and vote as delegates.  It was good having two of us there as we could bounce ideas off and support each other.

On that first day I saw Eddie Izzard (sans make-up and in a suit) and Ed Milliband.  There were debates on the Women’s Conference motion (‘Women and the Economy’) and a ‘democracy review’ which involved some rule changes.  My main worry, apart from getting my head around everything, was that there would be major dissent or even acrimony – but apart from a moment at the beginning when someone moved that we reject the Conference Arrangements Committee report (which would have meant disrupting the whole day’s business) there was a remarkable spirit of unity.  This did not mean unanimity but a willingness to work together and a sense that issues are too important to argue about minor things.  This spirit of unity pervaded the whole conference and I have to say I was proud of us: the Tories can do conformity but they rarely manage genuine unity.

A tremendous amount of work goes into organising a democratic conference as decisions taken on one day have to be incorporated into the next day’s business and compositing meetings and the Conference arrangements committee were up until midnight each day producing reports for the next morning.  I salute their efforts.

There’s so much to say about the rest that I think I’ll leave it for another post, but I came away with the impression that an awful lot of work has been done in a whole spread of policy areas.  Policies are not just a wish-list; they are solidly worked-out and based on wide consultations with a huge variety of people and groups.  Again, there is much I could say on this and I’ll perhaps come back to it.  I wanted to speak at conference but it was difficult to be chosen (the one beef I had was that the system for choosing speakers from the floor was inadequate) and if chosen I wanted to say that never before have I felt that my values as a Quaker so overlapped those of the political party I support.

The one issue which threatened to cast a pall over proceedings was that of anti-semitism.  It did come up but I’m happy to say it didn’t disrupt anything (apart from a hoax bomb call which scuppered a play and a couple of fringe meetings.)

There were attempts going on to cast Corbyn as anti-semitic but he lanced the boil in his speech by saying this:

There were also these orthodox Jews outside the conference:

Image result for Orthodox Jews outside Labour conference

image removed on request

If anyone still questions the extent of the problem, I would refer you to this recent research:

which is cited in a letter to the Guardian signed by a large number of distinguished academics:

https://bit.ly/2NTSokh

There were speeches from many members of the shadow cabinet including Emily Thornberry, John McDonald, Angela Raynor, Jon Ashworth and Kier Starmer.  We now have a range of policies across the board which all stem from a simple philosophy: of valuing people, investing in communities and taxing the rich (especially global companies like Amazon) to pay for it.  But of course Corbyn’s speech was the highlight of the conference and he didn’t disappoint: in fact I can’t think of a single thing he said that I disliked or a single thing he omitted to say that I’d have liked to hear:

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/read-jeremy-corbyn-speech-full-13311639

I arrived at conference wondering if we were ready for government.  I left knowing we are. 

Kirk out

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Nine Out of Seven Makes Me Mostly Harmless

As the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted, yesterday’s post was rather like Douglas Adam’s ‘Mostly Harmless: the Fifth Volume in the Increasingly Inaccurately-Titled Hitch-Hiker’s Trilogy:

https://www.abebooks.co.uk/HARMLESS-Fifth-Book-Increasingly-Inaccurately-Named/554906278/bd

Why?  Because I said it had seven tips when in fact it had nine.  Once I’d published it I kept thinking of more things to put in and having edited it about nine times I couldn’t be bothered changing the title and decided anyway it was more fun to have a title at odds with the content, thus violating one of my own top tips.  It’s always more fun to break your own rules… but who knew I could say so much about blogging?  I always tend to undervalue my own knowledge and expertise because it doesn’t seem very Thingish: by which I mean it’s Not Very Technical or Definite; it doesn’t have Rules or Widgets or Boxes to Tick.  And we live in a society that values Boxes and things which are Thingish.  But once I started writing I found I actually had a great deal of knowledge and expertise to pass on and others seemed to find it useful too, which is Highly Gratifying – and in accordance with Tip No. 1 – Be Yourself.

Of course that easy-sounding phrase is anything but: in order to be yourself you must first find out what that is; and it may be that people you love or want to impress don’t actually like it very much.  There’s always risk involved in doing anything public: many people have commented to me over the years that they wish they could write a blog but they’re afraid of what people will say.  I, too, know that fear: I used to look at the comments with dread in case someone was being rude or abusive – and sometimes they were.  But you learn how to deal with this stuff (oh no, I feel some more tips coming on) just as we all do on social media.  Nope, there’s no avoiding them – here come some more tips:

Tip 1:  Criticism Hurts

Yes.  It hurts.  I don’t believe there is a writer alive (or dead) who has not experienced the pain of adverse criticism.  Some deal with it by getting angry, others by hiding away until the hurt has passed, a few by taking revenge.  I don’t have a short-cut to pain-free criticism I’m afraid, except to say that it does get better.  Try not to react immediately: give yourself some space; talk to family and friends, eat some chocolate.  Remind yourself of how many great writers were criticised and rejected in their time and the pain will pass.

http://mentalfloss.com/article/91169/16-famous-authors-and-their-rejections

Tip 2:  Get Some Distance

A series of devastatingly cutting responses will go through your mind, each cleverer than the last.  Resist.  Everyone can detect the taste of sour grapes, no matter how eloquently expressed, and you diminish your own power by indulging in them.  First, try to get some distance; then try to judge the comment on its merits.  Does the writer have a point?  Is there anything (however unpalatable) you can learn from this?  Are they – though it might kill you to say so – right?

Tip 3:  Right or Wrong, Make it Work for You

Whether the comment has a point or is total garbage, make it work for you.  Live well is the best revenge, so says the proverb; so if they have a point, take it and improve your work.  If they don’t have a point, let their sheer wrongness spur you on to better things.  Activate your inner stroppiness: don’t let anyone push you off course.

Tip 4:  Don’t Give Up

The only consistent piece of advice I’ve received in all my years of writing is, ‘Don’t give up.’  Keep going; persist; keep writing.  However regular your practice, stick with it and don’t let anyone stop you.  If someone says you’ll never make it, take that word ‘never’ as a red rag to a bull and think what the hell do they know?  Don’t engage in argument: it’s a waste of energy.  Just get back to your desk and carry on.

Tip 5:  What If I’m Not a Writer?

No-one can tell you what you are; that’s true, but it’s even truer that no-one can tell you what you are not.  Only you can discover that – and if in the course of writing, you discover that this is not really who you are, so what?  I’ve tried a hundred things and discovered they’re not who I am; and in the process you’ve found something out about yourself and that’s valuable.  Finding out who you aren’t is a step on the road to finding out who you are.  Which leads me to my final tip…

Tip 6:  Be Yourself.

I think we touched on this one already…

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

Nominative Determinism, Psycho-Geography (Again) and a Poet Discovered

I have discovered a poet.  She was a Victorian, her name was Joanna Baillie and I had never heard of her; obviously a great omission as her work has a toughness generally absent from female poets of her time, with the exception of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  I shall say more when I know her better.

But Joanna Baillie was clearly not an example of nominative determinism: I don’t know where the name Baillie originates from (it may be a cognate of bailiff or something similar, perhaps I’ll look it up*) but Joanna Bard might be more appropriate, especially since as a playwright she was compared in her time to Shakespeare.  Nominative determinism crops up far more than you’d think:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominative_determinism

How often have you come across someone whose name quite inexplicably describes their job?  Like, say, Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the flushing toilet; or, to give a more recent example, Usain Bolt, until recently the fastest runner in the world?  How does this happen?

Historically it’s easy to see how, given that surnames were likely to indicate a person’s occupation; so, for example, you may be genetically predisposed to become a baker, a butcher or a chandler because, if that’s your name it means that somewhere in history, that’s what your family did.  (I’m not sure what to make of mine, incidentally, since we don’t seem to have a predisposition to go grey early in my family.)  Another explanation is that we may be drawn to occupations which reflect our name through a sort of unconscious egoism, as suggested here:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2018/may/02/nominative-determinism-who-has-the-best-name-in-running

What examples of nominative determinism have you found?  I’m sure there are some corkers out there.

And back to psycho-geography which, as I’m sure you recall, is the way in which the landscape can reflect an inner state.  This is evident in works such as Wuthering Heights (incidentally how many people have the name Bronte?) and much of Dickens’ urban landscapes reflect the turmoil and oppression of his characters’ lives.  It is also in Joyce’s Dublin, Rankin’s Edinburgh and, if you want to see it that way, Dante’s Inferno.  Which brings us neatly back to spirals and to the novel I have once more picked up, determined to finish it by the end of November.  Of course by ‘finish’ I mean ‘complete a first draft’ – which will of course be rough, incomplete and awful.  But as I was decorating it occurred to me that writing is like painting a wall.  First you clean and prepare; then you put the first coat on.  You stand back.  God, that’s awful, you think.  What a mess.  And it’s true – the old paint shows through, the edges are rough and you can’t believe it’ll ever look like it did in your mind.  But you persevere because you realise that this is just the first coat – and once the edges are neatened with a fine brush and more coats have been applied and everything cleaned up, it’ll look much better.  Of course writing is not that simple: would that it were! (that phrase always reminds me of Robert Robinson.  Not a case of nominative determinism).  With writing you have to apply several coats and very often change colour half way through and start again, not to mention sanding down in between.  It’s a hell of a thing.  Incidentally I can’t think of any writers with nominative determinism – can you?

Kirk out

*It’s Scottish and means a kind of steward or sheriff, so I guess it’s not dissimilar

 

Geography of a Psycho

You may have heard the term ‘psycho-geography’ or you may not: it doesn’t matter.  Psycho-geography is the connection of landscape to psychology; the link between your surroundings and your interior world.  Psycho-geography is a key feature of many crime novels – where would Rebus be without Edinburgh, its pubs and greasy spoons, its dank council estates overshadowed by Arthur’s seat? – and it is specifically mentioned in ‘Day of the Dead’:(https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2018/08/02/what-comes-after-sunday/) where the hidden rivers of London are a clue to the actions of a serial killer.  And now I’ve been and got me some psycho-geography too.

I didn’t mean to, at least not consciously (can you mean something unconsciously?) – as I said a couple of days ago, I set out without any plan at all.  But now that I’ve walked thirty or more miles of river (or canal) it occurs to me that there are very clear parallels between this walk and my life.  Walking the canals has been an existence alongside but entirely different from my everyday life.  Even when you can see the road, the towpath is a world away from the traffic.  It is a hidden life, a watery life; a life where you meet ferrywomen in tied cottages, chat to boating folk and ask them to fill your water bottle.  It’s a life of fishermen as still as herons; a life of getting lost, having tea in pubs, finding places to pee and being very glad to see Bertie.

In addition to all this, the river is a perfect metaphor for art.  Art has its own hidden course which it strives to follow rather than being swept along by the mainstream.  Stephen Fry once said that in every artist the desire to be seen contends with the desire to hide: I would add that the desire to follow your own voice contends with the desire to be recognised.  So in terms of psycho-geography instead of struggling to be recognised by the mainstream (the road), I’ve been following my own course (the river.)  It’s like song-lines, in a way:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songline

Does that count as cultural appropriation?

Kirk out

Can I Be Novel?

From time to time I have what you might call a prosaic crisis, where I wonder if I’m actually cut out to write prose or whether I should stick to poetry.  Yes, I know that these blog posts are in prose, but writing an engaging post is a very different thing from constructing a novel; something which seems utterly to defeat me.

I don’t know where exactly the blockage lies; but maybe help is available, so when a special offer from Mslexia plonked into my inbox; a guide to novel-writing for only three quid, I felt a twinge of that old excitement.  I clicked on the link and read the blurb:

‘Starting with the early sifting of ideas, helping you decide what exactly your book will be about, it goes on to help you create engaging characters, to devise a plot and narrative voice that will keep your reader turning the pages, to work on description and dialogue (and the balance between them), on to editing your work: page by page, but also from a structural perspective.’

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  It’s perfectly standard stuff – and yet it somehow filled my insides with lead, because once again I felt ‘this isn’t where I’m at.’  I don’t mean I’m above all that, nor that I don’t need to structure a novel or have interesting characters or whatever, just that…

I don’t even know how to explain it.  I don’t know what I want, I just know what I don’t want.  And that is it.

When I write poetry I feel I’m on the edge of a cliff.  Not always, but often: there’s a sense of pleasurable vertigo, of the wind whipping through your brain and flinging your hair in bundles this way and that.  To be engaged – fully engaged – in the writing of poetry is to be on the high peak of living, a place where words flow through you and are shaped and ordered by your hand.  I experience an amazing thrill in working with words, chopping them up and exploring their sound and their sense.

So why can’t I do this with prose?  Well, when it comes to turning a phrase, I can – but there’s more to writing a story than having an instinctive feel for phrases.  And this is where my heart begins to sink, when I think about things like plot and character and action.  Whenever I consider plot, I begin to die inside.  I bimble along with my writing and then a little voice perks up and says, ‘Surely something ought to happen round about now?’ and then I cry ‘Must something happen?  Can’t I just carry on like this?’

I’m not so bad at dialogue; I’m pretty good at description and I think I can convey character and internal thought.  But plot?  Dear god – kill me.  Kill me now.

My prose bores me at the moment: I need something to get the pulse racing; like when I was writing my first novel about a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker and wanted the novel to go right back to the beginnings of life on earth, 300 million years ago.  I was really excited about this, but the novel took years to complete and came out at barely the length of a novella; a form that’s increasingly difficult to publish.  What excited me, though, was to try to get some idea of what three hundred million years is like, to which end I began this doomed exercise:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/three-hundred-million-years/

Sometimes I think I’d give my eye teeth to have a normal sort of idea; to be able to say to people ‘I’m writing a novel about a Bulgarian taxi-driver who … ‘ see?  I can’t even take that idea any further.  Instead of which, I’m writing a novel based on a series of Tapestries and the Fibonnaci series.  See what I mean?

‘Doomed exercise’ pretty much sums up my life right now…

Kirk out

 

Please Do Try This At Home

I’ve no idea what this post is going to be about but the title came to me and so I put it in.  But I’ve started so I’ll finish, as Magnus Magnusson used to say, and tell you all about easing.  Not quantitative easing (not that I know what that is, though I seem to think it’s about easing the economy by putting a bit more money into it; a sort of Keynsianism lite) nor dressmaking ‘easing’ (which means sewing together two pieces of fabric of different lengths so they end up at the same place) but the normal everyday kind of easing that comes after a period away from work.  Of course, not all of us have that luxury; in today’s exploitative work environment holidays are a luxury, not a right and you are expected not only to hit the ground running but also to make up for lost time.  Bastards.

But since I am my own boss and only crack the whip when I deem it necessary, I am easing myself back into work.  This involves a morning of cutting the hedge (hardly a relaxing activity) followed by a nice cup of tea and a sit-down.

http://www.nicecupofteaandasitdown.com/book/

This is of course a British institution and needs serious conservation work in the age of people having ‘a latte to go’ or some such nonsense.  I mean, most places don’t do proper pots of leaf tea – and when do you EVER get extra hot water?  It’s an outrage.

Anyway, that’s my morning of easing.  Nice’n’easy – and yes, maybe you should try this at home.

Kirk out

Like the New Theme?

I’m trying to think of a word that isn’t revamp or makeover; words which strike gloom into the boots of every reader; anyway, whatever you want to call it, this blog is having one.  We’ve got a different theme called Penscratch and I’ve renamed it Sarada Gray to reflect the changing emphasis since I no longer write about yoga.  Now, I don’t expect you to get excited about this since this blog is about content not packaging; and I promise above all not to subject you to any surveys.  Surely everyone must be sick of surveys?  Every time I go on a website or fill out a form I’m asked to rate my experience: I swear to God that when I die I expect St Peter to be up there holding out a clipboard and a pen.  Please rate your life experience under the following categories….  Yeah, yeah, I appreciate that people are just trying to do a good job (or look as if they are) but there must be better ways of doing it than the infernal tick-box.

But I digress.  Sarada Gray, in case you didn’t know, is my pen-name.  If you don’t know where the name comes from and can’t be bothered to click on the link above, it happened like this.  In 1992 I was on a yoga retreat in Avila, coldest place on earth, at a convent in the mountains above Madrid.  The convent was basically a set of corridors open to the elements and the heating came on for half an hour a day, between 3 and 3.30 pm when I was usually taking a nap.  We got up at some ungodly hour to do meditation and at the start of the whole shebang we were invited to choose a ‘nombre espiritual’ – a spiritual name by which we would be known on the retreat.  This name should embody qualities which we wished to develop in ourselves.

I think it was that which inspired me more than anything in yoga – if you want to achieve something you should act as if you’re already there.  So I asked myself, where do I want to be?  The answer was of course, to be a writer, so I searched lists of gods and goddesses for suitable names and came up with Sarada.  Aka Saraswati, she is the goddess of creativity and wisdom (good combination) and is usually shown playing a veena, something like a sitar:

maa-saraswati-hd-wallpaper

Image removed on request

But believe it or not, it was years before I thought of using it as a pen-name.  For ages I played around with variations on my own name – Liza, Lisa, Beth… I knew I wanted to keep Gray but none of the variations seemed quite right; and then I had an epiphany.  Of course!  Use Sarada!  So there it is.  No-one else has a name like it; it has history and relevance and it sounds good.

So from now on this blog will be called Sarada Gray and soon it will have a new banner, courtesy of my talented son.

Now, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your experience of reading this post?

(Just kidding)

Kirk out