Monthly Archives: February 2014

Just Write: Week 5, 24th February

Writing classes resumed after a week’s absence for half term with a focus on dialogue. If nothing else in the past few days it has made me appreciate that the placement of the “” speech-mark on a Mac is one of the few things that’s less intuitive than the standard keyboard position above the 2 found on most laptops. I digress.

Homework had been something of a spying mission; to eavesdrop on some real life dialogue, transcribe it, and note down what struck you in terms of its flow and tone. In a triumph for technology over ethics I achieved this by using the voice recorder on my phone and picked apart a brief piece of conversation that I recorded and, I should add, subsequently deleted. I won’t transcribe it here: it’s not something that I’ve actually written and was done only for the purposes of listening to how people really talk.

A number of (I guess, obvious) things were striking to me. Firstly, the extent to which conversation just doesn’t follow any readily accepted written convention – it really isn’t a series of “turns” by its participants. People interject and interrupt, brief sub conversations start up and die, people get off track, come back to the point, lose it again. Secondly, quite a bit of it is pretty dull. Some of this might be as straightforward as people playing through a set of social conventions (“hello, how are you ?” etc.) and some of it might be just, you know, that all of us have our fair share of moments being dull. Every single sentence that comes out isn’t a pithy one liner worthy of Dorothy Parker or Clive James or <insert your own favourite wit here>. Finally, pace was quite interesting to me as the cadences of people’s speech change dependant on a variety of things, from what they’re talking about to how likely it is they think they’re about to be interrupted, to the emotion they’re trying to convey. That’s a tricky thing to capture within written dialogue itself – without clues that might come off as clunky (she said slowly…).

The exercise didn’t entirely disabuse me of the notion that I like quite stylised speech in books and films; I don’t necessarily want fictional people to talk like real people, I want real people to aspire to talk like fictional ones. I guess the important thing is to try to write dialogue that reveals character. This struck me more as I took on some additional, self administered homework and picked out some random pieces of dialogue from work that I admire – specifically Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (if pushed, my favourite book), Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City”, and Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X”. I’ve included the snippets as an appendix at the bottom of this piece – no copyright infringement intended and all that.

Whilst stylistically very different it was telling in all of them that, even taken out of context, you got some sense of the character that was speaking – it gave you something to go on whether it’s Michael’s faux melodrama, McMurphy’s glee and mischief, or the Gen X’ers self involvement (pot, kettle, black – I know but technically I am a Gen Xer). The voices are distinct.

The main exercise in the class wasn’t so far removed from my extra curricular work. We were given a randomly assigned line of dialogue from a book and had to work it in to our own free written (i.e. ten to fifteen minutes, whatever comes) piece, ideally with a focus on a conversation. It turned out that I knew the book that my line was from – still not sure whether this was a good or bad thing – and once that was in my head it was difficult not to reference it in some way. So, here it is, with apologies to a couple of old school friends whose names I shamelessly plundered in this piece:

“Three pints ? said Arthur”

“At lunchtime ?”

John sat bolt upright in the bed as he called back the line.

“Let’s not do that”.

“Why not hoopy froods ?” asked Dan.

“We did it last week, remember ?”

“Did we ?”

“Yeah, Willsy was passing that paper round in the back of Latin. Hobbo never suspected a thing.”

“How far’d it get ?” asked a now interested Dan.

“Vogon poetry I think. Definitely past the towels but then Jenkins cam in about that Maths thing for half term and I think he knew we were up to something.”

“God, Jenkins… There’s a guy that doesn’t know where his towel is.”

“What do you want to do then ?”

“Is this a cheese shop ?”

“No ! Not again” all of them said in unison.

“What have the Romans ever done for us ?”

“No, seriously, no Python.”

“Ever wonder why girls never talk to any of us ?”

“It’s a mystery my friend, a mystery….”

Looking at it now it didn’t quite do what I wanted – I had a fairly specific memory of some sort of school trip and a group of lads working their way through a Python recital. It’s in that spirit and some of that comes through but it needs a little more flesh to strictly qualify as prose I think. It’s pretty bare boned at the moment. I also appear to have misremembered the cheese shop sketch as I don’t think the words “is this a cheese shop” are actually in it. The fifteen year old me would have known that. The jump off quote (which I cheated a little by breaking into two lines) is from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; a book which my friends and I did indeed used to quote at each other.

We also did a quick fire exercise with just the line “yes”, she said as a start point which we had to follow with one line to try to express a girl/woman in a variety of emotional states. This yielded the following (none of which I was particularly taken with):

“Yes” she said. “I wasn’t sure how we’d recognise each other, that’s why I mailed about the carnation.” (shy) 

“Yes” she said. “You’re the little brother, I’m the mummy and you have to pretend that you’ve been really really naughty” (bossy)

“Yes” she said. “It’s what he asked. Turn it off” (sad)

“Yes” she said. “I have had enough, we’re going home” (moody)

“Yes” she said. “He does do that but I won’t leave him” (stupid)

That exercise was a five minute thing at the end and I struggled with it. Of the five the bossy little girl was the only one that really came easily and that’s largely because I have a six year old daughter who, on occasion, does say things like that.

However, all in all, another enjoyable week and much to ponder.

……

It would be remiss of me to not mention that one of my fellow classmates has just co-authored a book that has just been published. It is a non fiction piece on the subject of assisted dying and, amongst other things, compiles some heart breaking personal testimonies on the subject.

It’s an emotive topic but, to my mind, the law in the UK as it stands is wrong on this and we should seek to help people choose the manner of their dying with compassion and dignity. I wish Lesley well with her book and ongoing campaign work.

There are more details here at Dignity In Dying and, for the book, at Assisted Dying: Who makes the final decision ?.

……

That promised appendix (and once again – this is not my work (I wish !) and it’s reproduced solely for reference)

Random snippet from Tales Of The City (Armistead Maupin):

She managed a grin. “That might be nice.”

“Try to control your ecstasy, will you ?”

“I might not be here, Michael.”

“Huh ?”

“I think I’m going home to Cleveland.”

Michael whistled. “That’s not close to death. That is death.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense right now.”

“You mean” – he threw his napkin down – “I just wasted a whole chicken making friends with a transient ?” He stood up from the table, walked to the sofa, sat down and folded his arms. “Come over here. It’s time for a little girl talk!”

Random snippet from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey):

“It’s your roll, Cheswick.”

“Hold it a minute before he rolls. What’s a man need to buy them hotels?”

“You need four houses on every lot of the same colour, Martini. Now let’s go, for Christsakes.”

“Hold it a minute.”

There’s a flurry of money from that side of the table, red and green and yellow bills blowing in every direction.

“You buying a hotel or you playing happy new year, for Christsakes ?”

“It’s your dirty roll, Cheswick.”

“Snake eyes! Hooeeee, Cheswicker, where does that put you ? That don’t put you on my Marvin Gardens by any chance ? that don’t mean you have to pay me, let’s see, three hundred and fifty dollars ?”

“Boogered.”

“What’s thum other things ? Hold it a minute. What’s thum other things all over the board ?”

“Martini, you been seeing them other things all over the board for two days. No wonder I’m losing my ass. McMurphy, I don’t see how you can concentrate with Martini sitting there hallucinating a mile a minute.”

“Cheswick, you never mind about Martini. He’s doing real good. You come on with that three fifty, and Martini will take care of himself; don’t we get rent from him every time one of his “things” lands on our property ?”

Random snippet from Generation X (Douglas Coupland):

The first chink of sun rises over the lavender mountain of Joshua, but the three of us are just a bit too cool for our own good; we can’t just let the moment happen. Dag must greet this flare with a question for us, a gloomy aubade: “What do you think of when you see the sun ? Quick. Before you think about it too much and kill your response. Be honest. Be gruesome. Claire, you go first.”

Claire understands the drift: “Well, Dag. I see a famer in Russia, and he’s driving a tractor in a wheat field, but the sunlight’s gone bad on him – like the fadedness of a black-and-white picture in an old Life magazine. And another strange phenomenon has happened, too: rather than sunbeams, the sun has begun to project the odour of old Life magazines instead, and the odour is killing his crops. The wheat is thinning as we speak. He’s slumped over the wheel of his tractor and he’s crying. His wheat is dying of history poisoning.”

“Good, Claire. Very weird. And Andy ? How about you ?”

“Let me think for a second.”

“Okay, I’ll go instead. When I think of the sun, I think of an Australian surf bunny, eighteen years old, maybe, somewhere on Bondi Beach, and discovering her first keratosis lesion on her shin. She’s screaming inside her brain and already plotting how she’s going to steal valiums from her mother. Now you tell me, Andy, what do you think of when you see the sun ?”

I refuse to participate in this awfulness. I refuse to put people in my vision. “I think of this place in Antarctica called Lake Vanda, where the rain hasn’t fallen in more than two million years.”

“Fair enough. That’s all ?”

“Yes, that’s all.”

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Here is a sunrise… ain’t that enough ?

26. Ain’t That Enough ? – Teenage Fanclub

“What will you do ?”. That was the most common question and, no doubt, “what did you do ?” will be its echo when I return. I took six months out from work, six months sabbatical, and the question was always the same: what ? Sometimes people would cautiously venture into      “why ?”, wary that they were poking at something evidently personal, but it was much less common. Generally the safe question was “what ?”.

My answer was almost always the same, a vague “spend some more time with the family”, and something about getting to know my daughter’s school better. Those things were true but, six months ago, I don’t think I genuinely knew exactly what I was going to do. My answer always seemed to engender a very slight sense of disappointment in whomever had asked the question. Only very slight but just discernible. As if the answer everyone wanted to hear was something that, on the face of it, seemed more exciting: I’m going to travel the world, I’m going to base jump off the Sears Tower, I’m going to swim with wild dolphins, I’m going to write a book. And whilst those things sound great (apart from the base jumping thing, never a good look with vertigo) and I would genuinely love to do at least one of them that was never what six months out was about for me.

Some people knew I wasn’t in a great place when I decided to take the time out: this will give you some time to think they would offer gently. That wasn’t what the time became about either. Time to think has never been something I’ve been short of: it’s how I’m wired. I take Descartes to heart. I think, therefore… What had steadily crept up on me though was the old cliché about the mind being a wonderful servant but a terrible master (some more eloquent thoughts on which can be found here from David Foster Wallace via the wonderful Brain Pickings). Six months off didn’t give me a chance to think – it gave me a chance not to.

So the answer to “what…” ended up being this:

Four days a week I walked my daughter to school. Every single time it was the best twenty minutes of my day. We walk exactly the same route but she finds something new every time we walk it: a patch of snowdrops, a skip in someone’s front garden, the moon visible in the morning sky. She talks, babbling excitedly, and I listen to all the small things that are important to her – who is friends with who, why Scooby and Shaggy always have to be the bait, what she is going to play at school that day. We pretend a lot. I spend a fair amount of time being Max, her imaginary little brother, or the owner of Biscuit, an imaginary cat (obviously she is Biscuit), or someone from Star Wars. We practice spelling and she indulges my game of weaving that week’s words into the conversation seemingly by accident – “look at those flowers, what a beautiful purple…. Oh, purple – that’s one of your words, how would you spell that…. ?”. She indulges it with a roll of the eyes but indulges it nonetheless. She asks me questions that veer from the simple to the profound – what happens when people die ? why does Anakin turn to the dark side ? – and I answer as best I can. That Anakin one is pretty tricky, there’s certainly not enough in Attack Of The Clones or Revenge Of The Sith that convinces as motivation. Then we arrive at school and I watch her skip happily into the playground with scarcely a backward glance.

I cooked for my wife every week. I’m no one’s idea of a cook but every Thursday I tried to create something from scratch (my definition of scratch is quite loose). Tray baked fish is my specialty which has everything to do with the fact that it involves throwing everything into one dish and putting it in the oven. Presented rustically is what it would probably say in the review. Dolloped might appear in the same sentence. The point of my culinary misadventures wasn’t really about being any good, it was about investing time and effort and thought into the person I value above all others, the person whose empathy and support effectively gave me the gift of six months off: my wife.

I cleaned the house. I did the ironing. Went to the supermarket. Did all of the mundane, ordinary things that needed doing. I enjoyed them, enjoyed the routine, found value in the tasks in contrast to the lack of value I had been finding in my paid work. I don’t doubt that some of it was novelty, that some of it would become dull in time, but I didn’t reach that point. I actually remember thinking as I was cleaning the toilet that it felt like a better use of my time than the previous few months at work had been and if that isn’t a sign that you need some time off then I don’t know what is.

I took my daughter to swimming every week, sitting in the over heated local baths and watching her plough up and down the pool. I took her to ballet, dropping her off and then retiring to a local café with my notebook whilst she and her peers stomped around and occasionally stood in first position (presumably to distinguish what they were doing as ballet rather than just running about and randomly leaping). I chatted with the mums (and dads – but it was mostly mums) and the nannies and felt like I became part of a new community of people.

I bought a bike and started cycling. I won’t be troubling Bradley Wiggins any time soon but it did enable me to discover, on one of my meandering rides, that there’s a llama farm in the town where I live. If I’d been minded to write a diary of my sabbatical months then “Llama Farmers Of Suburbia” would have been in the running for its title. “Zen And The Art of Llama Farming” perhaps. I also took up a pilates class and discovered another new community of people. Mostly a community of middle aged ladies who routinely put me to shame in the strength and flexibility stakes. Still, not only can I now see my toes but I can also touch them without displacing something in my spine. All that stuff about exercise being good for depression ? It’s all true.

And I wrote. I didn’t write a book but I did find a way to start. I wrote 40,000 words. Some of them were quite good words and sometimes they were either preceded or succeeded by other quite good words. Rarely, a sentence would emerge that wasn’t half bad and a couple of times I think I nailed a paragraph. I discovered a lot about writing in the last six months but chiefly I discovered that the important thing – for me – to do is just to do it. Irrespective of any aspirations I might have to write a novel or make a living from writing the most important thing is to do it. Turns out it’s a part of me, an outlet for expression that is as critical for my emotional health as getting enough fruit and veg is for my physical health. Initially I grappled with writing in a public space (like this blog) given that I wanted to deal with some issues personal to me but it turns out that’s important to me too. Comments, words of encouragement, some recognition, however small, have all been hugely important to me. And deeply appreciated. If you’ve ever taken the time out to read any of this then thank you: it’s a slightly astonishing thing to me and means a great deal.

One of my stock responses when asked about my sabbatical was to say something like: “I can’t afford a Porsche and a ponytail really wouldn’t suit me so I thought I’d better have some time off instead”. A jokey acknowledgement that all of this might look a bit like a mid life crisis manifest. It didn’t answer the question as to what I was going to do nor, indeed, why I was taking the time. It was a light hearted deflection. I didn’t have a plan for the six months and, now at the end of it, I don’t regret that; I have no sense of having “wasted” time. Quite the opposite in fact. What I did and why I did it ended up having the same answer and it turned out that my vague “spend some time with the family” that I reflexively settled on before the sabbatical was right.

Experience some time might be better phrased. Experience some time, be present in those moments and not lost inside myself, and appreciate the truly important things in my life. Of course there’s been a certain amount of taking stock and a regaining of perspective as well; I’ve had time to not think but me being me there’s inevitably been some thinking. I had lost sight of what mattered to me and some time has helped bring that back to focus; my family have helped guide me home, guide me back to myself.

This morning, on the walk to school, my daughter was beside herself with happiness at the first signs of Spring, birds singing, flowers budding, and the sun in the sky. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that I’ve found the irony in life chucking me another free metaphor (watching Disney’s Frozen at the cinema and having way too much empathy with the lead character’s emotional repression and resultant disaster was my personal favourite) and I’m sure there will be ups and downs to come – there are as many winters as there are springs after all. But those moments are enough. They might be all there is. You probably all knew that anyway, I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake. Teenage Fanclub had it right all along.

Just Write: Week 4, 10th February

Session 4 of what is steadily becoming the highlight of my week was largely dedicated to idea generation, particularly with respect to potentially funny ideas. The homework from the previous week had been to write about something that had made you laugh and the class followed on from that.

I had actually found the homework pretty difficult. I just didn’t have a particularly funny week and, in turn, this made me reflect on all sorts of vaguely depressing things about how, actually, things just were less funny now than they used to be. Only I could turn homework that was designed to put a smile on your face and find a way for it to make me miserable. Lol. As I believe the young folk might say.

Anyway, I didn’t actually do the homework in time for the class as the piece I was going to write just wasn’t funny or didn’t strike me as in the spirit of what was asked for. I probably should have written it regardless. However, I have now found – hopefully – a happy balance between light and shade in something that did happen to me last week. I won’t outright claim that it’s “funny” as only you will be able to judge that for me. I quite like it though:

“You’re not going to make me look permanently surprised are you ?”

The hairdresser stared at me in the mirror quizzically. It had been a joke. She hadn’t got it. Maybe, to be fair to her, it wasn’t really a joke. 

I hadn’t given much thought to my eyebrows before but now, apparently, they were the main event. Cause for discussion. Cause for judicious pruning. It had started about six months ago on another visit to the hairdresser; finishing off my hair the woman that ran the place had casually asked if I wanted my eyebrows doing. Caught unawares I’d stammered some sort of refusal and left. Surely that had been some kind of mistake ?

Then it happened again the next time I was in and this time with a different hairdresser. Again I was caught off guard and refused but now I was concerned. Twice can’t be a mistake. Not with two different people. I inspected my eyebrows in the mirror at home with new found curiosity. What would constitute out of control eyebrows anyway ? I mean, they’re pretty big and bushy but not running amok across my forehead. Small children aren’t pointing and laughing in the streets. No one has given me a pair of tweezers as a subtle gift.

So this time I was ready for the question, was ready to engage in the world of eyebrow depilation. The sheet draped over my clothes, tucked in to my jumper like a giant napkin, was slowly covered with dustings of my hair. I was struck again by the changing proportions of dark to grey, black to white, like some elaborate game of chess played out on my head. The grey and white pieces are starting to win and black’s position looks lost without chemical assistance. The face staring back at me doesn’t look like one of those “Just For Men” faces. Not yet at least. For a start my eyebrows are evidently too big.

Daydreaming about the disconnect between the age I feel in my heart and the reality presented to me follicly I am thus, once again, caught out by the question:

“Do you want me to do your eyebrows ?”

I just catch myself before I blurt my standard demurral.

“What needs doing to them ?”

I ask it in the least defensive way I can. It still sounds pretty defensive.

“Just tidy them up – take off the long hairs”

She clearly thinks I’m mad. Which men of your age don’t have their eyebrows trimmed her reflected stare is screaming ? I mean, look at those furry monstrosities. So I surrender to it. I make a mental note to draw the line at getting one of those nose trimmers but accept that it’s only a matter of time before my ears need some attention.

“Okay… You’re not going to make me look permanently surprised are you ?”

She didn’t. Besides I spent most of the remaining day with my newly shorn brows furrowed in a frown anyway. Time – and facial hair it seems – waits for no man.

The idea generation in the class involved making two separate lists of nouns or proper nouns alongside each other – first things that came to mind – and then looking to combine any two of the randomly selected words and running with it. We had everything from the mundane – iron, table, paint – to the unusual – ventriloquist, taxidermist, leggy blonde (a running gag in the group) – and a variety of people and places – Gordon Brown, Mick Jagger, Tring. A whole host of others. From this it was surprising how easily you could end up with some potential jump off points for, at the least, vignettes. We had the ventriloquist in a steam room and there are some good possibilities there in voice throwing, face hidden. It got a bit out of hand when we put a bishop, the leggy blonde and Gordon Brown in with them…

After that we were given (in a similar vein) a character and a specific trait and had 10 minutes to write something. So here’s my obsessive compulsive driving instructor:

“Hands at ten to two please”

I adjusted my grip.

“No Mr Robson. Not 14.12. Ten to two please.”

Cautiously I moved my hands a fraction on the wheel and glanced across for approval. I was met with the sensation of my seatbelt catching me as the car ground to a halt. Hands reached over, moved mine a further half centimetre on the wheel. A pocket watch appeared in front of my eyes.

“See Mr Robson ?”

I looked at the watch face.

“Ten to two ?” I ventured.

“Ten to two”.

I checked my mirror and let out the clutch, ready to move on with the lesson.

“Why don’t we try the three point turn Mr Robson ?” asked the voice to my left. “Please turn the car around and line up with the kerb facing in the opposite direction.”

The road was narrow and, for fear of hitting the pavement, I clumsily turned the car around.

“A three point turn Mr Robson” sighed the voice. “Again please”.

I tried again.

“Three Mr Robson. Not multiples of three.”

“It’s too narrow… I don’t think the Highway Code is clear that it has to be three” I muttered.

“The code is not precise enough for me. Very well. At least align the vehicle with the kerb”.

I looked down out of the window. The car appeared straight.

“I don’t understand…”

“Align. Line up. Parallel. Please Mr Robson.”

Half heartedly I moved the car forwards, turning the wheel slightly, before stopping again. My instructive nemesis unsnapped his seatbelt and wordlessly left the car. I watched him in the offside mirror – he was pulling a tape measure from his suit pocket. He disappeared from view.

“Rear… 3.27 centimetres from kerb” he announced. I daren’t look as he moved up the side of the car. “Front… 3.39 centimetres”.

There was a deep sigh from somewhere down to my right and he then appeared at my window.

“Is that aligned Mr Robson ?”

“It’s very close…” I offered.

“The road is no respecter of very close Mr Robson”

And that was where I ran out of time and inspiration. In the class I didn’t really like it and I’d decided I didn’t really like it about half way in – I thought it was a one note idea and it ran out of steam pretty quickly. Also I couldn’t think of how to finish it. However, looking at it now – and reflecting on feedback in the class – there are elements that work okay. The perspective is quite interesting and there is something there of the atmosphere when you’re learning to drive so it’s not an unmitigated disaster. If I was going to finish it then I’d probably manufacture some accident that befalls the instructor, arising directly from his fastidiousness. Comedy gold.

Break for half term next week but, in the meantime, as ever, any thoughts or comments very welcome.

You know the deuce is still wild

25. Tumbling Dice – The Rolling Stones

The point of the 42 is not to rate things and, as a rule, I fight shy of reckoning one particular record as “better” than another. It usually strikes me as a false comparison, like saying tomatoes are better than cucumbers, or red is better than green.

I will make an exception here.

“Exile On Main Street” is the greatest rock and roll album ever recorded. It is. I’m happy to discuss it but, to paraphrase the late, great Brian Clough, we’ll talk about it for twenty minutes and then agree that I’m right. Or I’ll just play you “Tumbling Dice” and four minutes later we’ll agree that I’m right.

There has been a distinct lack of swagger in my list of records so far. Plenty of late night navel gazing, plenty of bottom-of-the-glass laments to what might have been and plenty of reflective moments of sobriety. You can stack the previous 23 records in all their contemplative angst ridden glory up against this and it redresses the balance on its own.

This is swagger writ large. It’s savouring the taste of draining your glass and not staring mournfully at the bottom of it but sliding it across the bar for another. It’s sexy as hell and, for its duration, will convince you that you’re sexy as hell too. It’s suss and street smarts and it’s never going home at the end of the night alone. Burn your copy of “Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway”. Buy this record, play it often, and let it arm you with its unshakeable confidence.

This is my favourite Friday night song. It’s my job interview song. It was my yes-I’m-going-to-call-her song. It is guaranteed to get me onto any dance floor irrespective of the deteriorating state of my surgery sodden knees. Moves like Jagger ?  You better believe it. Doesn’t matter if you don’t ‘cos the magic of this song is that it makes you believe. Honestly I suspect that I look like a constipated, arthritic peacock when I sashay around my house to this, hips shaking, hands clapping, head nodding in a strut. I suspect that’s the reality but I don’t believe the reality. I believe the myth this song creates for me. I am a dancefloor god made flesh when this song plays. This – and follow these links, they will make your life better – is me. And this. Maybe even this.

There’s a whole lot of stuff I could write about “Exile…”. The villa in Nellcote. Tax exile. Marianne Faithful. Gram Parsons. Recording all night in the basement and sleeping all day: the sunshine bores the daylights outta me indeed. It’s a great story – go read about it, Robert Greenfield’s “Exile: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones” is as good a place to start as any. But a detailed and sober analysis of this record – of this song in particular – just isn’t in keeping with the spirit of what it does for me. There’s no thinking. It’s all feel. (Now we’re paraphrasing Bruce Lee).

This song works in the gut, in the feet, especially in the hips, and the only thing it asks your head to do is nod appreciably. It’s the exact opposite of everything Marillion are about from the last post. Try having sex to a Marillion record. Those time signatures are all wrong. Try having sex to “Tumbling Dice”. Notice the difference ? Now try “Ventilator Blues”. Oh my god. Charlie Watts sliding in just behind the beat. That’s the best sex you’ve ever had in your life.

You can’t blame the Stones for everything that happened after this record. For Aerosmith. For hair metal. For Dogs D’Amour. I don’t even really blame them for becoming the corporate brand that they are now – would be interesting to know what Keith would have said to you if you’d told him in 1972 that he’d wind up playing a caricature of himself in a kids film about pirates because one of the other pirates was modeled on him. I imagine he would have – as in my all time favourite Keith clip on the internet – chopped the mother down.

You can’t blame them because once they were the best band on the planet. I’ve long since frozen them in time and the Stones exist for me as their ’69-’74 incarnation. The one that makes me move and makes me feel more alive.

Just Write: Week 3, 3rd Feb – Part 2

Much of week 3 in the writing class was taken up in listening back to everyone’s homework from week 2 – I wasn’t the only one that had taken the random poem trigger and run with it. My piece is the previous post – here.

I learned a lot through this exercise and ended up somewhere wholly unexpected. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima is a subject that has long fascinated and horrified me in equal measure; I’m currently reading Paul Ham’s non fiction book “Hiroshima Nagasaki” and am a long time admirer of Stephen Walker’s “Shockwave” and John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (an extraordinary book). It’s not a subject I had ever anticipated writing about.

On day one I had an image and that was it. I had an idea of seeing one of the infamous bomb shadows reflected in water, and the idea of that water then being disturbed and the image disappearing. Some kind of play on the idea of permanence and transience I guess although I have post rationalised that: it came purely as an image. The first section deals with that image although looking at it now I would probably rewrite it as it doesn’t quite do what I set out to try and conjure. In that first paragraph I also needed someone to be looking at the image and that’s where Katsu came from – literally just someone to be looking at this stage.

Whilst working out what to call Katsu I started poking around at the meaning of Japanese names; Katsu broadly translates as “victory” in so much as my limited research reveals and I liked the bitter irony in calling him this. Having called him something it became apparent to me that he must be there for a reason and so began a snapshot account of his life as a bomb orphan – told backwards effectively – and his mother’s life just before the explosion, told forwards.

Towards the end of the week it became apparent – to me at least – that the structure of the task was potentially going to constrain this story. I think I’ve stumbled on something that would support a much larger narrative. I ended up finishing it to reach some kind of closure (Neil Gaiman’s advice ringing in my ears: “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished”) and to have a complete story.

However, there are big chunks of the story missing – Katsu growing up in the countryside away from the city (with hinted at abuse), Katsu surviving in the orphanage under American occupied Japan, and then there’s a massive bit missing about how and why he ends up in the States and why (other than seeking some form of closure with his mother) he comes back. There’s also a lot that could be fleshed out in Yuri’s story.

That said I was reasonably pleased with what is there. I’m least happy with the college scene and it possibly suffers as I tried to crowbar the poem (the original story trigger) back in. I’m not sure that the later hint that the man that raised Katus pre-orphanage referred to his mother as a ghost is strong enough to explain his reaction in the class. I was trying to get across that he obviously had an unhappy time of it in the States at that point – I don’t know but my supposition was that Japanese immigrants might still be viewed with suspicion post World War 2.

The orphanage scene was more successful I think although walks a fine line in exposition and I was pretty happy with the scenes of Yuri and her co-workers on the way to the factory. Still not satisfied with the end (there was going to be an alternate one which really wasn’t very cheerful) but there are a couple of phrases I would keep. The Cousins character is real. Norman Cousins established a “moral adoption” program in the States in the 50s for survivors of the bomb and he did visit Ninoshima. Someone I will be reading more about.

The other major learning for me – which I sort of knew but had never experienced in quite this way before – was that writing and editing aren’t the same thing. Not the same thing and best not done together. In fact, the latter really gets in the way of the former. I didn’t help matters by trying to do research at the same time as well. Again, it’s a different thing. Switching off that internal editor whilst writing (and returning to edit later) will be a hard discipline for me to nail I think.

So, all in all, a qualified success I think. Would be interested to know what you think oh loyal readership ? Both of you.

The only other exercise in the class used a set of true, but ridiculous, 999 calls to the Fire Service as our writing trigger. We came up with ideas in groups then individually picked one and bashed something out on it in five minutes – and it really was five minutes. So here’s mine. In stark contrast to atomic bombs and orphans and displacement it’s a knockabout, throwaway kids story I guess:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Why do I always have to be the quick one ? Jumping. Bounding around. Probably running myself to exhaustion. Why can’t I be the dog ? Look at him: lazy. Gets to lie around there whilst I jump over him. As if I’m going to jump over some dog anyway. Probably bite me. They’re not very bright. We’re the smart ones – infamous for our cunning – so why am I the one doing all that needless leaping and bounding and jumping ? Being quick ?

“999 Which service do you require ?”

“Fire Service please. You must come. There’s a fox in my garden with ever such an odd look on its face…”

That last line, of course, was, apparently, a genuine call. You will have to believe me on this but in a brilliant bit of irony it just took me several attempts to type “the quick brown fox…” despite usually being relatively nimble on the keys…

Just Write: Week 3, 3rd Feb – Part 1

I have divided week 3 of my writing group/class into two sections, principally because the homework task from week 2 turned into a relatively long piece. We were given two lines of a poem selected at random and asked to write for 5-10 minutes each day using it as a starting point, progressively building on the previous day’s writing.

I’ll make my own comments on it, as well as update on the rest of week 3, in the next post. For now, here it is – the opening line is taken from the aforementioned poem fragment.

……

The ghost of a woman, her body overboard laid, in the waters around

Katsu muttered the words under his breath as he stared at the reflection in the pooling water beneath the steps. It had rained heavily last night and the city now glistened, the sun radiating back from hundreds of puddles that dotted the streets each time it found room between the clouds. He disturbed the surface of the water with his foot, just a light tap to send ripples racing towards the edges, and the reflected figure slipped from focus, breaking apart and reforming, undulating, until finally he could see only black.

He looked up at the steps themselves, at the source of the reflection. It wasn’t her. It wasn’t anyone anymore. The bomb frozen shadow etched forever into the concrete wasn’t his mother. There were no features to discern in that dark silhouette beyond a leaned-on walking stick but it didn’t matter. His mother hadn’t used a stick but that wasn’t how he knew that it wasn’t her. She hadn’t been here. She’d been on the river just as she was each day. She’d been on the Motoyasu river right before it boiled.

The ghost of a woman, her body overboard… he murmered again, turning away from the steps, and continuing on towards the river.

……

Yuri Mori hurried down to the boat, jostling amid the throng of women making their way towards the river. It made no sense, she thought, to live in the city and take this trip every day, down to the factories. Why didn’t they just move everybody down there, down towards the harbour ? Nothing made much sense to Yuri anymore.

A woman in front stumbled and fell to her knees as the crowd moved forwards. Other women pulled her to her feet. She looked down at her grey overalls now scuffed from the dust on the ground and raised her hands in mock dismay.

“My monpe. My beautiful monpe. However will I find a husband now ?”

“You are lucky Aiko” shouted another. “Now you have an excuse to visit Fukuya Store”

There were some weary laughs from those close to the exchange and the steady procession towards the river renewed. Yuri didn’t laugh. A year ago perhaps she would have. Defiant and proud bringing her son into the world and naming him for victory.

She shook her head, refusing to think of him, and pushed her way forwards towards the boat again. It must be eight o clock by now and she did not want to be punished for being late.

……

“Kats !”

The call brought him to attention and he pushed himself upright in his chair.

“Thankyou Mr Anderson, that will be all.” Katsu’s English professor turned his gaze from a grinning Mr Anderson round to Katsu himself.

“Mr Moore, nice of you to join us again. Now, please, if you would, read us the passage on page nineteen”.

Katsu looked down at his book and began to read: “Give me the splendid silent sun…”

“No Mr Moore”. He was interrupted. “Much as you would all learn much from Whitman we won’t have that pleasure until next semester. Something more contemporary to get you started. Page nineteen please. It begins ‘the ghost of a woman, her body overboard’ “.

Katsu flinched at the words and began to shake his head slowly. A memory pinched him. He couldn’t quite grasp it, half remembered and hazy, but the words troubled him deeply. He knew that they would be painful to say.

“I can’t… Not that passage. Please Professor. Someone else ?”

“Mr Moore, this is not a good day for you, is it ?”. The class laughed. Someone called out “Look out Sir, maybe that Kats has lost his claws” and the class jeered again. “Please read the passage”.

The words swam on the page before him now. Ghosts and women and bodies. He felt a rush of embarrassment, of shame, on realising that tears had formed in his eyes. Angrily he pushed them back with his thumb and forefinger.

“Read it Kats” sneered the student next to him. The class took up the chant “read it, read it, read it” as the Professor half heartedly gestured with his palms for them all to calm down.

Katsu abruptly pushed his chair back from his desk and stood up, the chair legs scraping across the floor and quelling the mocking chant of the other students. He rubbed at his eyes again.

“Katsu. My name is Katsu. Katsu Mori. And I will not read this thing for you”. He glared around the room before running for the door.

……

The boat nosed out into the river belching diesel fumes. Yuri stood at the stern, as she always did, and watched the city start to slip away from her. She scarcely noticed as the boat sounded its horn to signal its departure, lost in her own thoughts. Her world – their world – was full now of sirens and horns and klaxons. She vaguely remembered the all clear sounding out just an hour ago. A cacophony of warning for a catastrophe that never came.

That was why they’d sent him away. He will be safe in the hills they’d said. It’s your duty. Japan must have men for the future and you must work for its present. It is the right thing, the honourable thing, to do.

He had been barely a year old when the military police prised him from her arms, tears running freely down her face.

A distant “burr” pulled her back from her thoughts. She raised her head to locate the sound, different to the usual, abrasive aural interruptions to their days, and picked out a lone plane in the sky. Just a speck in the distance. But coming closer.

……

“What’s your name child ?” asked the tall man in the long coat. He didn’t look like the others. He was American, Katsu was sure of that, but he didn’t wear a uniform like the ones he’d seen on the streets coming into the city or the ones in charge of the boat they’d taken him on.

“He can’t understand you. We only took him in today.”

“Another from the hills ?” said the tall man.

“Yes. Far as we can tell he’s been there for six or seven years. The farmer didn’t want to give him up – he told us we were taking a good worker.”

“You think he was mistreated ?”

“Perhaps. Life in the hills is hard Mr Cousins. Life in Japan is hard but we can support him here and educate him. When you go back tell them about Katsu – tell your friends about him and the ones like him. That is what we use the money for.”

Cousins bent down to look more closely at the boy. His face was dirty and he carried scratches and bruises; perhaps the kind of scratches and bruises any eight year old boy might wear. Perhaps. He gently pulled the boy’s face up, lifting his chin so that the Director of the orphanage might also see. He raised his eyebrows by way of question.

“Beatings are common Mr Cousins. The man who had him was no worse than many in the hills. It is difficult for you to understand how it has been since the war. For some the sense of shame in defeat was too hard to bear and they took it out where they could.”

“He had no family at all ?” asked Cousins.

“None that we can trace. The farmer says he was taken from his mother when he was very young. He was given him by the police. It happened a lot, to keep the children safe.”

“The mother ?”

“She was in the city” said the Director. “We don’t know where but she must be dead. What was it the farmer called her ?” He paused, thinking. “Yurei. Yes, that was it. Yurei.”

“Her name ?”

“No, Mr Cousins. Yurei. It is not exact but in your language it means ghost”

……

The women on the boat gazed upwards at the plane high overhead.

“Another one ? What do they want with us today ?” said one.

“Don’t worry Miyu. Look how far away it is. Those cowards don’t bomb us from up there anymore”. It was Aiko who spoke, her overalls still dusty at the knees from where she’d slipped over.

“Perhaps they are bringing you your new monpe Aiko” laughed another woman.

“They are taking photographs I expect” said Miyu.

“Yes” said Aiko. “Photographs of us beautiful Japanese women in our fine clothes ! Their American women are too ugly for them !” She looked up at the sky, leaning back to present her dirty monpe, and gave a broad smile. The other women laughed and joined in with Aiko’s clowning, posing for an imagined photographer’s flash.

Yuri looked up the boat, turning her eyes away from the receding city, and briefly allowed herself a smile at her fellow women. Temporary respite from thinking of her lost son, her little Katsu. She clung to the hope that the war would soon end and she could take back her child.

It was her last thought before the world turned white, the boat was thrown from the water, and she and the women were burned to ash.

……

Katsu Mori leaned on the railings and stared down into the depths of the Motoyasu, the first time he’d seen it since leaving the refuge on Ninoshima all those years ago. Light danced on the water rippling against the wall of the jetty as the sun broke cover. The river was choppy here, continually broken by passing boats. Katsu shielded his eyes, raising his hand to his forehead, as if to try to see past the shimmering surface.

What had he expected to find ? There were no answers here. He wasn’t even sure he knew what he was looking for anymore, just that he had spent his life dislocated. A ghost. Perhaps not quite a ghost. Ghosts were the souls of the dead that were unable to find peace, he thought. He lived but he lived with the nagging, restless displacement of those orphaned by the bomb.

A cloud overhead rolled across the sun dimming the twinkling lights on the water. Katsu gazed down, his own reflection now visible, staring back at him. A woman’s face appeared in the water next to his own, smiling up at him; a quizzical, concerned smile.

“What do you see Katsu ?”

Katsu looked up from the water and turned to his wife.

“I see my home Asuka. I see home.”

She placed a hand on his shoulder and, together, they looked back down at the river, back down at their own reflected, ghostly faces. A plane taking off from Hiroshima airport climbed above them and they watched its silhouette in the water before the sun reemerged and it disappeared in a dazzle of lights on the waves.

Keep the rest of my life away

24. Fantastic Place – Marillion

Marillion are probably the least “cool” band in the UK. Certainly the least covered in the mainstream music press these days considering the size of their fan base. I suspect they don’t care and more power to them for that. They were a big, big band for me as a teenager, presumably hooked in by “Kayleigh” in ’87 (some fine hair in that video) and then going backwards into the first two albums, “Script For A Jester’s Tear” and “Fugazi”. I don’t actually remember my route in but it must have been via the singles from “Misplaced Childhood” – they were probably the archetypal “handed down from older brother” kind of band but I didn’t have an older brother. I do vaguely recall liking a girl called Hayley at around the same time and I’m trying hard to suppress a memory of changing the chorus to “Kayleigh”* to fit my unreciprocated love. Sadly, a recurring theme of my teenage years. The lack of reciprocation, not the changing of lyrics to the chart hits of the day…

To fully immerse myself in this post I decided to listen to all of their studio albums, in order, up to and including “Marbles”, from which “Fantastic Place” is taken. That’s 13 records. It took me a couple of days and I did cheat a bit on day 2 when I had to listen to something else just to break things up. What struck me was the disconnect in my head between the two versions of Marillion – with Fish, with Steve Hogarth – and the reality. Fish era Marillion was the one that I grew up with and I was still a fan during the transition as Hogarth became the vocalist – in fact, the only line up I’ve seen live was with Hogarth round about “Season’s End” and “Holidays In Eden”. I still think of the band’s output as split roughly equally between the two singers but in actuality Marillion has long ceased to be Fish’s band. Albums with Fish: four. Albums without Fish: thirteen (counting the “Less Is More” acoustic re-workings album).

I lost track of the band just after “Holidays In Eden”, the second post Fish record. Listening back to it now it has its moments but it’s a little polite, particularly for my tastes back in 1991 when I was in thrall to fuzzed guitars and singing wasn’t singing unless it was a cathartic scream for understanding. Ironically the follow up, “Brave” is a fine record – a concept album about a girl found wandering on the Severn Bridge, unaware of who she is or how she got there – and I should have given it more of a chance back in ’94 when it came out.

There’s then a run of five albums between ’95 and ’01 which I’d never heard. This run also marks the point at which the band moved away from a traditional record label model for recording and distributing their music towards an ahead-of-its-time version of fan funding. I don’t know if they did it first but Marillion were certainly doing Kickstarter before anyone had even heard of Kickstarter. There’s an interesting Tedx talk from Mark Kelly (the band’s keyboardist) on crowdfunding on the band site: here.

Hearing these records for the first time, in sequence, was an enjoyable experience. A few songs popped out straight away as warranting further attention and “This Strange Engine”, in particular, as a complete album is one that I will go back to. Marillion don’t tend to write immediate songs though so repeated listens often repay; it’s music to sit and soak in rather than stuff to stick on in the background while you’re doing something else.

Those five take us up to “Marbles”. About three years ago I had noticed that a friend (who had been a fellow Marillion fan at school) had been listening to a couple of their songs that were unfamiliar to me – via last.fm, the marvelous music-meets-stats website (my profile is here). This piqued my curiousity and I found the songs on a streaming site. One of them would have been “Neverland” which I immediately fell in love with and subsequently ordered the album direct from Marillion.com. Who says streaming services don’t work ? Artist royalties is perhaps a debate for another time…

“Marbles” is a wonderful record. Built loosely around recurring themes of madness, escape and the loss of childhood innocence it showcases the band at its best – I think it’s their career highpoint (although “Clutching At Straws” from the Fish era is also a brilliant record). Those recurring themes, eagle eyed regular readers of this blog will have observed, are like cat nip for me but they wouldn’t be enough on their own for the record to resonate. Sometimes, for me, like quite a lot of what you might term prog, Marillion can lose the balance between a song and something that extends for its own sake. Sometimes the sounds don’t seem to be going anywhere. That never happens on “Marbles”. Never happens on the 13 minute opener “The Invisible Man”, never happens on 12 minute closer “Neverland”. And even never happens during the 17 minutes and 57 seconds of “Ocean Cloud”. Everything here, every note on this record, is perfectly judged, immaculately played, and serves each song. There’s nothing extraneous which is no mean feat given the length of the album.

There are four or five tracks on the record that I really love, particularly the stellar closer “Neverland” (well worth your time, linked on the Neverland reference above) but “Fantastic Place” is the one I have taken refuge in more times than I care to remember. Sunk into it and let it spirit me away. A song about escape that I use to escape.

As is becoming a recurring theme in this list my relationship with the song doesn’t rest on a literal read of the lyrics although there are themes here which resonate, notably about opening yourself up to somebody (say you understand me and I will leave myself completely; I’ll tell you all I never told you, the boy I never showed you) and the idea of release from everyday life (take me to the island, show me what might be real life; put your arms around my soul and take it dancing). This song, for me, is all about how it builds. It’s similar in some ways to where we started, way back with Warren Zevon and “Desperados Under The Eaves” – a self contained journey from disillusionment to the potential of something better.

“Fantastic Place” is a slow burner, from the muted, subdued opening – Hogarth almost murmuring the verse – through choruses that progressively grow in scope musically; it swells like a wave building until finally breaking into the bridge. That section as the bridge lyrics run over into the guitar solo (say you understand me and I will leave myself completely, forgive me if I stare but I can see the island behind your tired, troubled eyes) is breathtaking. It’s not rare for a song to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up but it is rare for the same song to do it, in the same place in the song, every single time I hear it.

Then we’re into Rothery’s gorgeous solo (his playing throughout “Marbles” is exquisite) before the song just continues to soar through to its close. Hogarth’s vocals on this track are also worthy of special mention, particularly in the very final section where he pulls off a performance that’s technically spot on (in so far as these ears can tell such things) but that wrenches something genuine out of his guts. I deliberately posted a live version at the top of this as it’s worth watching Hogarth perform it and his reaction to the song as it finishes – he is utterly lost in it and it’s a touching moment seeing him almost return to the room, back from wherever the song has taken him.

There is a magic in this song, a transformative, transportative magic. Strong enough to make up the word transportative and strong enough to carry me away when I need to be carried away.

* Given that Fish allegedly wrote “Kayleigh” about an ex girlfriend called “Kay Leigh” I think I’m in good company. She’ll never guess, Fish.