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

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

Comment is Free but it’s Scary

Further to my story being published the other day, there are now some comments on the site.  I’ve been told some of them are critical, but I haven’t yet had the courage to look for myself.  I know people can be especially harsh on-line, and it does upset me when I get critical comments, whether or not I feel they are deserved.  The first post I ever put on the Mslexia blog generated a comment that the writing was awful and the piece trivialised a serious topic.  I got a lot of supportive comments following that, but the initial experience was like a blast of cold air.

And this is the problem for all artists.  Whenever you put your work out there, you are inviting comment – and whilst you hope comments will be appreciative and criticism constructive, it often ain’t.  There’s always someone who won’t like what you do, no matter how good you (and others) think it is.  How many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries slagged him off?  Quite a few, I should think, and not only because they were envious.  Of course, as C P Snow pointed out, you’ve asked for it – or some part of your nature has.  You want to be seen and read, you need readers; and in order to get them you have to run the gauntlet of the critics, both paid and unpaid.

Or, as Leonard Cohen puts it:

There’s torture and there’s killing

and there’s all my bad reviews

So if you liked the story please go to the site and post a nice review.  But only if you liked it.  If you didn’t tell me why – but be kind!

Kirk out

Review of ‘Breakbeat’ by Rod Duncan

Sorry, couldn’t think of a witty title for today’s post, so this one does exactly what it says on the tin…this week I’ve been reading a crime novel we were given for the Crime Reading Group.  It’s called ‘Breakbeat’, it’s by a local author, Rod Duncan (don’t think I know him though some of you might) and is set in Leicester.  Now as you know – for I have often told you so – many of C P Snow’s novels are set in Leicester, including ‘Strangers and Brothers,’ ‘The Search,’ and ‘The Affair’ – but Snow always goes to great lengths NOT to mention the town (as it was then) by name, and to exclude or disguise any actual places, street names and so on.  Not so Rod Duncan.  He not only mentions a number of times that ‘Breakbeat’ is set in Leicester, he names specific streets and buildings: in fact he describes the locations so accurately that I can picture exactly where his character, Daz, lives; where he sleeps rough after being thrown out; which club he hangs out at, and so on.  This adds a whole new dimension to the novel for the local reader: and whereas in reading Rebus places in Edinburgh are described but given fictitious names, here there is a complete congruence between the fictional city and the one I know.  Or almost.  The only thing that jars in this fictional account of the Leicester riots, is that Daz lives in Highfields – but for some reason Duncan has changed the name to Waterfields.  I guess this is for political or possibly legal reasons: however in a scenario that is so precisely described and so accurately named for the local reader, ‘Waterfields’ jars every time you read it.

Still, it’s a good story.  It has the authentic feel of someone who has actually experienced life in the underclass rather than just researching it, and the narrative pace is good – not too slow, but not the breakneck speed of a Rankin novel. meaning that I can almost understand the plot first time around.  Daz is an inept but likeable petty thief who tries and fails to stay out of trouble.  Manipulated and bullied by his landlord, a corrupt policeman and a fence called Patty who fakes her own death, each of whom wants him to be their snitch after the riots, Daz tries to save his own neck and do the right thing as he sees it by trying to protect Patty and the dancers he used to live with, who are the nearest thing he has to a family.  A putative relationship with his case-worker at the Job Centre makes a good sub-plot, and the thing builds to a climax in a scene where everyone – criminals both in and outside prison, bent and straight policemen, Patty the fence who is still in her hospital bed, and Daz – is trying to play the others off against each other and get a share of a rather large amount of stolen money.  There are regular tropes here, albeit with a twist – a multi-storey car-park and a meat rendering plant where Daz and his girlfriend nearly end up as dog-food; but somehow these tropes don’t seem hackneyed.  Rather, they seem as if brought into a different reality – one which is more down-to-earth and closer to home than Rankin’s Edinburgh.  Perhaps that’s because I live in Leicester and not Edinburgh; but I suspect it’s more to do with the characters and the writing style.

Anyway, whether or not you live in our fair city, give this a read.

Kirk out

He Said, She Said: Dialogue in Fiction

When I was a teenager we used to play a game called ‘Consequences’.  It went like this: one person began with he said – and then a statement: the next person went she said and a response, and the third person said and the consequence was… and made up the punch line.  it tended towards the sexual and one example might be:

He said, how about a dance?

She said, I don’t mind if I do.

And the consequence was –  (you can fill that bit in yourselves…)

Now, that sort of thing is all very well in the playground, but in fiction you can’t just keep on saying he said, she said as it rapidly gets very boring.  So as well as using synonyms for said (uttered, responded, managed to say, etc) you need to be creative in how you portray dialogue.  You can get away without putting the speakers names in for a few lines, but after a while the reader tends to lose track of who is speaking.  So you can do this sort of thing:

‘He’s perfect, isn’t he?’  Lily was bending over the cot, her face soft with love.

James started to speak.  ‘Yes, he is, he’s -‘ but then emotion overtook him as well and they just stood, holding hands and gazing at their firstborn son.

That’s not a direct quote from Harry Potter – or indeed anywhere – but it shows how much information you can convey without even using said or its synonyms.

C P Snow is adept at showing character through dialogue, and particularly at conveying a self-deprecating attitude in his main character who is also the narrator, by reporting his word rather than giving them (I said yes; I agreed; I said that it was).

Dialogue needs to flow, and it needs to do more than just give the words spoken, otherwise it becomes indistinguishable from a play: Ivy Compton Burnett is an example in point:

I can’t find an example of her dialogue but check her out.

Ian Rankin is also adept at displaying character through dialogue.  Well, let’s face it, he’s adept at everything, but let’s take a look:

‘Cafferty unlinked his hands so he could raise a finger, as if to stress a point.  “Difference between Rebus and me – he’d sit in the bar all night and buy drinks for no bugger.”  He gave a cold chuckle.  “This is the sum total of why you’ve brought me in here – because I bought some poor immigrant a drink?”

“How many poor immigrants do you think could wander into this bar?” Rebus asked.

Cafferty made show of thinking, closing his sunken eyes and then opening them again.  They were like dark little pebbles in his huge pale face.  “You have a fair point,” he admitted.’

In this very short extract from ‘Exit Music’, we have body language, tone of voice, a sense of the history of their relationship and insight into character, as well as visual imagery, all packed in a couple of sentences.  That is the genius of a master, to convey just enough – not too much – through dialogue and hence avoid unnecessary swathes of description.

Incidentally what’s also really interesting about the relationship between Rebus and Cafferty is how uncomfortably close the two characters become at times; and how near enmity and hatred can be to friendship and love.

So get reading and check out any or all of these authors!

Happy reading!

Kirk out



The Two Cultures – What am I Reading Right Now?

Yes, on Friday’s it’s book reviews, and today I am going to compare two very different and yet oddly similar writers I’ve been reading.  They are – CP Snow

and Kathy Reichs:

On the face of it they could hardly be more different: Snow died in the 1980’s and is now only remembered for two phrases: corridors of power, which is now in common parlance, and the two cultures, a phrase which expresses the gulf between the arts and sciences.  On the latter, he said with some justification that, whilst many scientists have read some works of fiction, on the arts side most people would be unable to tell you the second law of thermodynamics – and that this is basically the equivalent of asking ‘have you read a book?’

I myself have only the haziest idea about the laws of thermodynamics, but I think the second one is the phrase about heat not itself being able to move from a colder body to a hotter body.  Or ‘the entropy of a closed system tends towards the maximum’.  Is that right?  Hang on, let’s check:

OK I’ve read that and I’m none the wiser…

But I digress.  Although Snow and Reichs are about as different as two writers in English can be, they do have things in common.  They both write in the first person, and both write series of books based more or less on their own professional experiences (Snow was a barrister and civil servant, Reichs is a forensic anthropologist who helps to solve murders) but there is much more to divide them than to unite them.  Reichs is the perfect antidote to too much Snow and a typical sentence of his might he:

‘It was a tough compromise in one sense, but in the end it was more than we could reasonably have expected.’

A typical sentence of Reichs’ would be:

‘I goosed my speed – I wasn’t going to put up with any of Ryan’s crap.’

They are divided by a continent (Reichs sets her novels in Montreal and Alabama, Snow is firmly English) and by a couple of generations.  On the other hand, both excel at depicting character and in description – and in narration – they both draw you in.  With Reichs you are, as it were, sucked into the updraught by the sheer velocity of her plots; with Snow the process is one of slow hypnotism: I came across ‘The Masters’ when I was eighteen and though normally I wouldn’t give a toss about who wins an election to the Mastership of a Cambridge college in the 1930’s; bit by bit, he draws you in until you care terribly about who wins.]

He is a persuasive writer where Reichs is a thrilling one.

In his day Snow was occasionally compared to Proust, which seems absurd nowadays.  It’s not altogether unfair – he has the cast of characters and the insight into social mores – but he doesn’t have Proust’s depth, nor his gift for philosophy.  So that, although this prophet of the (white male) meritocracy is able to see deeply into the society he depicts, he’s not able to see beyond it – and that is why he hasn’t survived the passing of that society.

The only problem I have with Reichs, though, is one I find with a lot of modern writers, ie the sheer complexity of plot.  With any Ian Rankin novel, for example, I have to read it two or three times to get all the ins and outs of the storyline, and it’ s almost as complex with Reichs.  The sheer welter of information that’s coming at me is overwhelming.  I don’t know if that’s just me – I’m not a particularly narrative-based person – or if it’s common to a lot of people, but I find it quite troublesome; whereas Snow’s plots don’t cause me any trouble at all.

So there you are – two writers divided by a common language.  I recommend anything by Kathy Reichs but if you don’t like teen stories then avoid the ‘virals’ range and just go for the others.  As for Snow, ‘Corridors of Power’ is an interesting read, as is ‘The Masters’, and ‘The Light and the Dark’ is an intense and insightful analysis of what we would now call bipolar syndrome.


Kirk out


I was reading this blog post today:

and picked out of it the word ‘Thoughtsofa’.  I think a ThoughtSofa would be a great idea – somewhere in public where you could just sit and think or discuss with fellow sitters whatever was passing through your mind – perhaps about Left Unity.  So it was timely that I came across this programme last night about ‘She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’:

It charted the woman’s downfall through a series of at times irritating flashbacks – it was quite hard to get a handle on when we were in the action – but what came across quite clearly was that in her strength lay her weakness: it was the inability to listen to the word ‘no’ which got her to the top – and it was that same inability to hear criticism which propelled her out of office.  At first I thought Lindsay Duncan’s portrayal was too soft – unlike Meryl Streep she didn’t get the voice right, though at the same time the thought of having to sit through nearly two hours of that voice, having lived through a decade of it, was hard to bear.  But the iron fist soon made itself felt: the bullying of ministers and the way they were all afraid of her.  According to C P Snow, the writer who advised in the Wilson government, everyone was afraid of the PM.


Denis was portrayed more sympathetically in this than in the ‘Dear Bill’ persona which became the default in the ’80’s (I used to look forward to these when I read Private Eye).  It was also fun playing ‘spot the minister’ as they went for physical resemblance as well as good acting: there was Geoffrey (dead sheep) Howe, whose resignation sparked the whole thing off: Michael (‘Tarzan’) Heseltine, Alan (bastard) Clarke, Lawson, Hurd – the whole bloody shower, even Willie Whitelaw, his benign old-school manner brought out delightfully by Robert Hardy*.  And then there was John Major, lurking sinisterly in the background like Blofeld, lacking only a cat to stroke.

Go watch while it’s still on i-player.  And while you’re there, pick up the last episode of The Village, whose first series ended this week.  Am I alone in thinking that ‘The Village’ has echoes of ‘The Prisoner’?

There may not be anything similar in the plot or characters, but the place is equally claustrophobic.  It is also anonymous, known only as ‘The Village’ – and as in the Patrick McGoohan series, there is no escape: though characters do leave they are either killed or they return in a broken state.  But let us not dwell on what is probably a very minor point: The Village is an attempt to depict the life of an English village over the course of a century, beginning with the start of the First World War in 1914.  Series 1, not surprisingly, focusses on the War and its effect on the villagers: one young man is shot for desertion because he has shell-shock and can’t return to the front: he also has an illegitimate child with a daughter of the folk at the ‘Big House’ where he worked for a time.  The baby is of course sent away and its mother suffers a bout of mental illness from which she is ‘cured’ by a forbidding man who first force-feeds her and then (possibly) rapes her.  Worker’s rights form a backdrop to the main action, with women keeping the factory going and finding themselves exploited and manipulated.

There are a number – perhaps too many – themes in the series: religion and its failure to address the harder issues of the day: bullying in many forms, including by a schoolteacher who failed the army fitness test; the infancy of feminism and the exploitation of the women who kept the factories going while the men were away.  It was a gripping view, although I had some problems with the way the stories were told.  There were dramatic scenes which were never resolved: stories began but were not finished – although since this is the first of several series, they will perhaps be resolved later.  But it did give a sense of incompleteness: of being ‘up in the air’.

But here it is:

And that was yesterday.  Apart from sitting in the sun and attempting to mend Daniel’s bike, that is.

Kirk out

*’As minister for Magic, I suggest…’

An evening is a lo-o-ong time in politics

An evening of furious politicking, offers and counter-offers.  We’re all fed up with it I think – just want a decision so they can get on with it.  Really don’t want – oh, hell – I can’t even be bothered saying what I do or don’t want.

Now, all of this puts me in mind of C P Snow.  You know – at least you ought to know, for I have often told you so, that C P Snow was the man who gave us the phrase ‘the two cultures’ – meaning science and the arts – and that he was from Leicester.  He was not only from Leicester, he lived here until his twenties and co-founded the university.  Not only that, he set many of his novels (the ‘Strangers and Brothers’ sequence) in Leicester.  He described the city (town as it was then) in detail.  So I expected, when I moved here, to find a number of tributes to him.  What did I find?  Nothing.  After a great deal of research I managed to find his old house – where he grew up.  Guess what?  It had been demolished.  There was a blue plaque on the house next door – nothing to do with the council as blue plaques are done by an independent organisation.  I have lived in Leicester for the best part of 22 years and not heard a word about him locally.


Well, it’s something else to rant about besides politics.  I read Snow’s novels avidly when I was younger.  He’s not exactly reconstructed – his women don’t hold positions of power, although they are real characters and not cut-outs – but what makes him fascinating is his analysis of power.  He came up with the phrase ‘Corridors of Power’.  He also served as some kind of technology advisor in the Wilson government.

I’m going to bed soon – I’ve been awake since four.  Chalet tomorrow

Pip pip!