Category Archives: my magnum hopeless

In Like a Lemon, Out Like a Lamp

It’s March now and you know what they say about March: in like a lion, out like a lamb.  It certainly arrived in leonine fashion; in fact it was more like a snow-leopard than anything, what with the Beast from the East (not Putin) coinciding with Storm Emma (not of The Archers).  The whole shebang reminded me of how blessed we are in general to have the Gulf Stream, and how horrid things would be without it: for, though we are subject to bouts of unpredictability and flurries of inconsistency, the climate of the British Isles (excepting the Highlands and Islands) is generally mild.  With climate change summers have got longer and winters shorter; and whilst I enjoy hot weather it does naturally worry me; a propos of which I have just started reading Naomi Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ – a thorough and very influential guide to climate change and its deniers.

As far as climate change denial is concerned, it is now on the level of ‘the moon landings were faked’ and not far off believing that the earth is flat.  The evidence is there for all to see; the polar ice-caps are shrinking, sea levels are rising, the sea is warming, habitats are vanishing and places like the Maldives are going under.  It takes some degree of mental contortion to disbelieve all of these facts, particularly when you consider that 97% of the world’s scientists agree that man-made climate change is a fact of life.  What’s more worrying is that the process of climate change may be exponential: that like the Fibonacci series I wrote about the other day (of which more anon) levels may not increase at the same rate but reach a ‘tipping-point’ beyond which recovery is all but impossible.

Now, I’m an optimist.  I’m a firm believer in the power of humanity to solve the problems it has created.  But in order to do this we need to believe that there is a problem: and climate-change deniers, especially when they are powerful politicians or global capitalists, are holding up progress in an utterly unconscionable way.

Enough.  We can do this, but everyone has to get on board.

Speaking of Fibonacci, I have planned the novel around the number sequence and, whilst I’m quite excited about this, it does pose some problems; namely, that the first chapters are very short and the last ones very long: it will also be a very long novel if I stick to the plan.  So I’m just going to go with it and see where I end up.  It’s exciting!

Kirk out


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We Have Normality. Anything Else is Therefore Your Own Problem

I’m nearly better, though measuring your own progress is far from an exact science.  I was re-reading my old diary (from 2006) and trying to figure out if I was happier then or if I’m happier now – and I think the answer is, both.  I was happier then in the sense that I had work and money; we were involved with the children and had frequent holidays.  On the other hand the diary is full of my frustrations: people I disliked and didn’t know how to deal with; continual demands on me from work and children – and above all a total lack of time to write, which resulted in mental chaos.  My mind felt completely cluttered; and whilst I don’t have any of the external trappings I had then, what I do have is a large measure of mental clarity and plenty of time to write.  If I don’t write I get mental constipation: thoughts build up and up and are never released, like one of those progress bars which never quite gets to the end – or if it does, just starts all over again.  They ought to call them Sisyphus bars because they never get to the end…

Getting better is like returning to normal from Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex: ‘we have normality.  I repeat, we have normality.  Anything else is therefore your own problem.’

I have to figure out which symptoms were due to the TVP – aka chest infection – (eg tiredness, depression) and which are now my own problem.  Of course in a wider sense everything is my own problem, but it’s good to know which are caused by a bug and which aren’t.  Though I suspect it may not be that simple.  After all, why do we get bugs in the first place?

Now there’s a question with a never-ending answer.

Kirk out

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There’s something about a Wednesday afternoon.  When I was a student this midweek time was given over to sports and leisure: you would wander round during fresher’s week signing up for boxing and ice skating and generally end up by week three hanging out in the coffee bar with your friends.  But this tradition seems to have gone by the board now, so that, instead of being a fallow period, Wednesday afternoon is a slump, a time when the enthusiasm of Monday has waned and the fun of Friday seems a long way away.

I’ve come to the conclusion that fallow periods are important.  Quakers, for example, traditionally don’t celebrate Christmas as every day is supposed to be special: and that’s fine, except that Christmas and New Year for many people are times of hibernation; a period when you can legitimately disconnect from everything and everyone.

In farming, too, it used to be the tradition to leave land fallow every fourth year in order to rest the soil – but that seems to have gone by the board now in favour of more and more fertilisers (there’s an evolving story on The Archers at the moment where Home Farm seems to have poisoned the River Am with nitrates.)

Then there’s the principle of Sunday as a day of rest (it doesn’t have to be Sunday but it’s convenient to have a day when nearly everyone’s off work.)  This morning on Thought for the Day Giles Fraser talked about the boringness of church being a good thing, as it’s important to allow time and space for the mind to wander.  I agree with him up to a certain point (though as a child my mind was never allowed to wander because you were supposed to pay attention.)  But there’s an important principle at stake here, which is that boredom is not some kind of disease to be eradicated but a fallow state which can be a prelude to great creativity.  When our kids said they were bored, instead of entertaining them we’d say ‘I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’  And they usually did.

I am more and more aware of the need to allow my mind to lie fallow.  It’s all too easy for the work ethic to sit on your shoulder and crack the whip, so that if you haven’t produced a certain number of words, you’ve done nothing.  This is not the case.  When the mind is in that fallow, ‘dreaming’ state, there’s no way to tell what you’ve done, because it’s happening under the radar – just as the regeneration of the fallow soil is happening in subtle, invisible ways.

Even so, on days like today I can feel a sense of futility.  What have I achieved?  What am I doing?  Where’s it all going?  What is the point?  These questions bump around in my head like particles in a Large Hadron Collider.

But if I stop trying to ‘work’ and just let things be, something interesting will happen.  I’m not sure what, but I’ll keep you posted.

The final thought for today is that there are parallels between the First World War and the state of the NHS – not in the severity of the situation, but in terms of the leaders and those on the ground.  Doctors and nurses working in the NHS today truly are lions led by donkeys – and the sooner we get rid of this government, the better.  So now that we’ve arrived at the First World War, here’s a taste of true futility:


Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Kirk out

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The Selfish Genius

I’m becoming obsessed by this theme right now.  I wake in the early dawn and try to figure it out: what is the best way to live if you have an all-consuming talent?  I am not content with the traditional models of ‘selfish genius’ which dictate that in order to follow your inner voice you have to ignore everything – and more crucially everyone – else.  This is what male writers have traditionally done; and recently women are going there too: there’s a whole plethora of articles exhorting women writers to be selfish, to put themselves first, to ignore the children and carve out writing time.

Now, this needs a little deconstruction in the context of households where women have traditionally put themselves last.  We were conditioned to ignore our own needs, or at best put them on the back burner.  When everyone else’s needs have been satisfied, then it’s your turn.  Trouble is, that turn never arrives; you catch your breath for a moment  before realising, like poor old Barbara in The Royle Family, that having cooked, served and eaten Christmas dinner you are now faced with a kitchen full of washing-up.  I have to admit when I watched this episode I had an overwhelming urge to kick Jim out of his chair and into some good quality rubber gloves (sorry a bit of Withnail got in there by mistake)  (oh no, another bit!)

Deep breath.  So, in that context yes, it is entirely in order that Barbara should boot Jim into the kitchen to do his bit while she goes upstairs to write something sensational.  However it’s not only in the carving out of time that the selfish genius rears its head.  Write what you know is the advice – and it’s good advice – the trouble is that you also end up writing who you know.  Literary history is littered with friends of the writer who have recognised themselves in print and decided that since the passages can’t be deleted, they’ll delete the friendship instead.  This is not to mention the wives, ex-wives, lovers and partners of authors who can find themselves writ large in two hundred sizzling pages.  Not unnaturally, these people feel betrayed.

And of course the third thing that writers always do is steal.

So here’s the thing: how does one become a great writer without being a total sh*t?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  I actually want to know.

Kirk out

PS: what do you think of the title?  It came to me in the night and I thought it was pure ge…

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Evolving a Theory of Genius

And a propos of my last post, who should they be discussing on the radio this morning but  the mathematician Gauss:

He was a child prodigy who had taught himself to read and write by age three and whose gift for mathematics was reportedly discovered by a teacher, who on trying to keep a class busy by asking them to add up all the numbers between one and a hundred (one plus two plus three etc) was astonished by Gauss immediately producing the answer: he had figured out a short-cut and reasoned rather than calculating.  He then got a scholarship courtesy of a local duke.  So far, so encouraging, but as an adult he seems to have become every bit as obsessive and sociopathic as other geniuses and reportedly,  when told that his wife was dying, asked ‘Can’t she wait?’  This idea that genius demands total concentration; one hundred per cent dedication to the exclusion of all else, is deep in our psyche – and I want to question it.  I simply don’t accept that being a genius equals being an arse.  I am performing my own Gaussian calculations here:

genius ≠ arsedom is my first conclusion.

The programme went on to discuss the old infinite monkey argument.  Gauss, when asked if his ability was innate or the result of hard work, replied that it was the latter plus concentration.  Now, I am entirely on board with the idea that hard work is necessary to genius: the latest version of this being the ‘thousand hours’ theory; the idea that practising anything for ten thousand hours will make you an expert.

Well maybe, but have you ever tried to practise something when your heart wasn’t in it?  Did you take piano lessons as a child and hate them?  Surely if Gauss’s life proves anything it’s that the ability was there right from the start, way before he started to work on it.

So I think it all comes down to the inspiration-versus-perspiration question.  It has been suggested that genius is 9% perspiration to 1% inspiration: I’d put it around 75/25 but the principle holds true.  It is entirely possible that were I to practise music for 35 hours a week I would be thoroughly proficient within a year.  I would also be climbing up the wall because, much as I love my guitar, I just don’t wanna.  It is not in me to do this.  Whereas writing for 35 hours a week, busting my gut trying to produce something worthwhile and not getting paid for it – is.

So, to summarise my calculations:

genius ≠ being an arse

10,000 hours ≠ genius

genius = 25% inspiration + 75% perspiration

So there you have it.  Now go forth and multiply.

(In a good way.)

And here’s the programme:

Kirk out



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Genius? That’ll Be Everything You’ve Got, Madam

The current model of Genius At Work may be in flux but the go-to setting is the same as it has always been: a man in a study with a virtual Do Not Disturb sign on the door; family creeping around and No Interruptions Whatsoever.  Genius works odd hours and cannot be relied upon.  It won’t be awake in time to take the children to school or make their sandwiches.

If this genius has to balance writing with paid work he will come in, pour a glass, have some food and devote the rest of the evening (and weekend) to Art.  There are people who can do this: C P Snow was one, holding down a career first as a barrister, then as an academic and finally as a politician whilst writing a bunch of novels about – well, about being a barrister, academic and politician.

But I’ve never been able to do this, part of the reason being that unlike Snow, I don’t have clean clothes unless I wash them or food to eat unless I cook it (or at least wash up after it).  I don’t have a clean floor unless I vacuum it, or an organised environment unless I tidy.  Plus, I have children – and children interrupt.  It is inevitable.

Until they were teenagers I had no time to write: I was too busy earning a living and educating them at home.  Apart from a few snatched minutes morning and evening my only writing time was a couple of days away twice a year: it wasn’t nearly enough, and yet looking back it’s hard to see how I could have done anything differently.  It’s no good having children if you’re going to ignore them.

So what to do?

I would like to suggest a different model of genius.  I don’t deny that writing – or any art – takes time and concentration.  But I think it would benefit male artists as well as their partners to share in the domestic tasks – the reason being that doing the cleaning or washing up is very grounding.  To put it epigrammatically:

Every woman has to stop writing to put the tea on.  That is her tragedy.

No man does: that is his.

I suggest that historically, women go mad when they can’t write, and men do when they can.  This is due to a lack of balance.  Everyone needs to pitch in – and then we’ll get the work done.

I can feel Snow scoffing at this idea.  But then he had a housekeeper and a wife…

Kirk out

PS I don’t wish to give the impression that I am married to someone who doesn’t pitch in.  That is not the case





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A pinch and a punch for the first of the month.  That’s what we used to say at school – and today, as well as being the first Wednesday it’s also the first actual day of the month; which means it’s time to link to the Insecure Writers Support Group:

November is the month of NaNo, of course: nothing to do with nano-technology (unless you write a particular kind of Lilliputian sci-fi) but National Novel Writing Month, a time when just about every writer I know goes into purdah in order to complete their latest project.  The idea is to write during the month of November an entire novel totalling no fewer than 50,000 words.  (If you’re wondering what 50K looks like, it’s a short novel: the average length is 80-100K.  But it’s still a huge achievement.)  And this month we are asked by the IWSG whether previously we have completed our NaNo projects (yes, nearly every time) and whether any of them have gone on to be published (no).

I’m not doing NaNo as such this year; I have, however, begun an epic poem along the lines of Wordsworth’s Prelude, telling in iambic pentameter the story of my life and poetry.  It’s epic in terms of length rather than subject, and I have no idea how long it will turn out to be, but we shall see.  It’s very hard to rhyme a poem of that length, so I have contented myself with blank verse, just the odd highlighted part in rhyming verse.  I’m finding it very helpful.

So that’s me.  If you’re doing NaNo I wish you all the best.  Let me know how you get on.

Kirk out



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