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

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’:( 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:

Does that count as cultural appropriation?

Kirk out

Rather Be The Devil

Those of you of a certain age and disposition will recognise that title not only as a John Martyn track but as the latest (and last?) Rebus book.  Last night I clicked through a few old John Martyn tracks (I’ve got the CD somewhere but it’s probably in storage) and saw some ancient videos of the man in his prime.  Martyn’s voice and style are unmistakable, like molten fudge served on hot coals, his lips barely enunciating the words as he sings from a throat constricted by emotion and perfectly adapted to his slithering, slapping guitar accompaniment.  I love John Martyn even though I’ve never been an a-grade fan, never saw him live nor bought all the LP’s but still he can turn my soul to jelly in a couple of bars.

It’s quite fitting that he should feature in so many of the Rebus books since in many ways he and the detective are alike.  In his youth Martyn was utterly beautiful with slim, delicate features and dark curly hair – but alas, in middle age (he barely hit old-age, dying at 60) he became a grotesque parody of his former self; bloated and bandy with one leg amputated below the knee, most of his problems brought on by drink and drugs.

Enter Rebus in this his umpteenth print incarnation, named after the above John Martyn track, ‘Rather be the Devil.’

————————–SPOILER ALERT———————————

Unfortunately for Ian Rankin, having begun what turned out to be a lengthy sequence of novels with John Rebus already in his forties, he has now had to retire him, and it’s getting harder and harder for both the detective and his author to squeeze him into the action.  Besides, Rebus is – or might be – dying; a shadow on the lung he christens Marvin (think about it*) threatens his very existence and, miracle of miracles, he has given up the fags.  He has a girlfriend now and through her gets involved in a cold case; this, however, does not prove the main thrust of the action.  The cold case proves to be linked to other cases involving gangsters including none other than our old friend Cafferty.  Through a mixture of guile, deceit and purloined business cards, Rebus wangles himself into the investigation, to the increasing frustration of former sidekick Siobhan Clarke and former adversary Malcolm Fox.  These two clearly constitute the future, but what’s Rankin in Edinburgh without Rebus?  And there’s the rub.

The storyline is as good as any of the others, but for me what was missing here was some level of emotional engagement.  Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the book, but I’d have liked to know a little more about Rebus’s inner life: I’d have liked some conflict with his girlfriend rather than having her simply bookend the story: I’d have liked some more suspense about whether he was going to live or die.  In the end he’s just let off the hook and it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

So all in all, worth reading but not the best Rebus ever.

Kirk out

*Hank Marvin – got it now?

Let’s Reify

I have blogged before about the thinginess of things: ie the tendency to make everything into an object.  This, I suspect, is at the heart of the ever-increasing number of compound verbs.

For example, this morning I heard someone on the radio say, ‘I admire anyone who daily-blogs.’

Now, in an old-fashioned context this might seem perfectly normal, since daily, being an adverb as well as an adjective, was often used before a verb, viz: ‘He daily walked across Hampstead Heath.’  However I suspect that this recent utterance was coming from an altogether different place; from the land of the dreaded Compound Verb.

Mark reckons that reification, or thinginess, is the reason I didn’t get the ESOL job.  The irony is patent: Ofsted exists, supposedly, to promote and monitor good teaching.  I was told that my teaching skills were good.  Ergo, no problem with Ofsted.  But no – as any fule kno, Ofsted is its own little (not so little now) empire, generating its own work, its own ways of doing things.  Which means that passing an Ofsted inspection is effectively a job in itself.  Whereas it ought just to be about whether you are doing a good job in the first place.  If you are, where’s the problem?

Reification, guys!

Incidentally, the word comes from the same root as Rebus.

Bong!  In other news, I am happy to report that my poem is now in Mslexia magazine.  I got my copy in the post yesterday!


Kirk out

Crime: Sometimes it is just Black and White

The first book I am reading for the crime reading group at the library is this one:

Set mainly on the Isle of Lewis, it’s an interesting read, mainly for the settings and the characters rather than the plot.  The story begins in Edinburgh, whereupon I thought, ‘Oh, no!  He’s trying to do a Rebus and doing it badly’.  No-one can do Edinburgh like Rankin and it is foolish to try: however, the story soon returned to the Shetlands and more specifically, to the Isle of Lewis where the main character Fin had grown up.  I couldn’t help thinking of a quote from Rebus here, when he went to the Shetlands in a ‘paraffin budgie’ and was told: ‘You’re a Sooth-moother now, heading for miles and miles of bugger-all.’

As soon as we land on Lewis we are confronted by a storm of Gaelic names.  I have always found Gaelic spelling bizarre and incomprehensible and, being a person who likes to know how to pronounce words when I read them, I was constantly having to refer to the pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book.

Fin is a detective, and there’s murder here, of course: a murder which he is sent to investigate and which leads to the unravelling of much of his childhood when he discovers that his childhood sweetheart’s child who has been brought up by her and and his best friend, is in fact his.

But the real hero of this tale is the landscape: the wildness of the countryside, just the two roads crossing the Island, and most dramatically of all, the sparkling white, guano-covered rock where the men go to harvest gugas, baby birds which are considered a delicacy.  This is contrasted with the Black House, a smoking-house blackened by the smoke of generations, which is the scene of murder.

I enjoyed this book although I found it a little long at 500 pages: I also found the transitions between first- and third-person narration unnecessary and intrusive.  But still it’s worth a read, if only for an impression of what it’s like to live on Lewis.  So go find a copy – although if you’re in Leicester you won’t, because they’ve all been lent to the crime reading group!


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



It’s a Crime not to Read This

So… on Thursday I went along to the inaugural meeting of the local Crime Reading group: this took place in the library and turned out to be an all-women affair, though the facilitator, an ex-librarian, was male.  He proved to be very knowledgeable about crime and got the discussion going; though people didn’t need much encouragement, being a very vocal group.  We began with our favourite authors: M C Beaton was the first to be mentioned, an author towards the cosy end of crime who was referred to throughout as Mrs Beaton, which amused me.  Ian Rankin featured heavily, of course, as did Patricia Cornwell – whom I have yet to read – Kathy Reichs and Val McDermid were also mentioned; many people liked Agatha Christie (which I don’t) and what was surprising in retrospect was how little Sherlock Holmes was mentioned.  A sign of the times perhaps?

There was a potential split between those who wanted to focus purely on books and saw TV adaptations as irrelevant (‘I have only books and radio 4 in my house’ said one) and those – one woman in particular – who seemed very focussed on TV programmes and admitted to reading only ‘short, easy books.’  I suspect most people are like me, wanting to focus on books but also interested in the dialogue between books and other forms – and in particular, whether future books are influenced by past adaptations.  Some people claimed that Ian Rankin’s books, for example, had been changed by TV interpretations of Rebus.  So that will be interesting.

For next month we have a book to read which is based in the Island of Lewis off the coast of Scotland, called Black House.  I’m finding it interesting so far and he evokes the setting well:

And so to the Ale Wagon, where Jan and I discussed Scottish independence and whether the vote would go through if they had it tomorrow.  She reckoned it might…

…and going back to yesterday’s theme, there’s an awful lot of talk about tennis injuries and why the courts are so slippery, but few people seem to mention the obvious: the utterly crappy summer we’ve been having.


Kirk out

The Wrong Kind of News

And yes, there’s the usual bout of national self-flagellation about the weather and our response to it, and as ever, the inevitable comparisons with other countries.  Here’s a photo that sums it all up:


But let’s be fair.  We never know when we’re going to get snow until we get it (yes, I know that with satellites long-range weather forecasts are a lot more accurate, but still, we were supposed to have this snow a week or two ago and sometimes they forecast it and it just doesn’t happen) so we never really know till it comes.  The fact is, our weather is just downright unpredictable; we can have a heatwave in summer and moan about being unprepared for that, but it will only last a few days: likewise a freeze in winter comes but once every few years and only lasts a mere week or two – or less.  That’s why we remember the winter of ’63 (and some people may also remember the winter of ’48 too) – because it was unusual.  I remember the winter of ’63 very well, as I told you before: every day I tried working with that pile of frozen snow my Dad had shovelled for me, and every day I was forced to concede defeat.  So really I think we need to cut ourselves some slack here.  In fact I think we ought to be proud of ourselves – since the only thing we know for sure is that the weather is unpredictable, and we cope pretty well with that.

What Do You Think of it So Far?

Does that phrase ring any bells?  If so, you’re probably old enough to remember at least one of those frozen winters, for it was a line from the perennial Morecambe and Wise Show.  A staple of Saturday nights, it’s hard to say why these guys were so funny – they just were.  It wasn’t what they did or said; they were just funny in themselves.  Their material was good, but hardly ground-breaking: not the sort of thing you’d expect someone of my generation to like – and yet I watched them religiously every Saturday.

(I am compelled here to add a brief aside – which you can skip if you want – on the word ‘religiously’ and how it is used to mean only one aspect of religion – that of regular observance – and so ends up sounding bizarre if you think about it.  It reminds me of a joke I always used to make about the phrase ‘slept like a baby’ to which I responded with: ‘woke up every hour screaming?’

OK that’s over now.  Back to the script…)

So, one thing they always used to do at some point in the show was ask each other – or the audience – ‘What do you think of it so far?’ to which the other (or the audience) would cry: ‘Rubbish!’

Perhaps it was that self-deprecation which endeared them so well to the British public.  So.. today I am going to ask myself the same question of a book I am reading:

‘What do you think of it so far?’

to which I shall cry:


For yes! I have got hold of the latest Ian Rankin.  And what do I think of it so far?

Pretty good.

As good as the others?

Jury’s out.

OK then.  So today I shall be mostly… staying indoors as there has been Even More of the Wrong Sort of Snow.

Happy birthday Peter!

Kirk out

And by the second set it was all over

Poor Andy!  But there was no beating Federer yesterday.  Still, he did well to get there.

Curry at Peter’s yesterday.  Watched an adaptation of a Rebus book, the first one I’ve seen.  Good, I think.

Going to have Anna set in concrete.  In Leicester they are asking for nominations for people to have a Hollywood-style footprint set in concrete.  I’m going to nominate Anna for her peace work.  (No pun intended, ha ha).

Not much else to report this morning.  Cold and frosty.

Kirk out