what day was I born on?

You were born on a Saturday
Your star sign is Capricorn
Your birthstone is Blue Topaz
Your birth flower is Narcissus
The season was Winter
Your mother put 4 drops of her old, red blood into a copper pot, and danced around it with a bladed weapon
The time of day was midnight
Your guardian angel is Steve (Bella at the weekend & public holidays)
You like pistachios
You don’t like the idea of Baba Yaga’s cottage standing on – what would appear to be from the rough drawings you’ve seen, at any rate – nothing more substantial than chicken legs
*Print a free gift certificate of these results*

noah? i’m sorry, it’s a no

You need tyrannical tendencies to be a writer.

I don’t mean for the dull, day-to-day business of getting the words down – which in my case is fitting in writing around the day job, and revising rejection coping strategies when the slips come back. (Every time you send work off it’s like releasing a pure white dove from the ark, only to have it come back three weeks later, partially carbonised, coughing soot, tail feathers gone… you get the picture).

NOTE TO SELF: Rejection coping strategies in urgent need of revision.

No. What I mean is, you need tyrannical tendencies to write a readable plot.

For example.

Here I am, coming to the end of yet another book (better than the last one – trust me on this).

SIDE NOTE: In the past all your early crappy work would end up composting creatively in a drawer somewhere; now, the internet has made that drawer infinitely wide and accessible to everyone, all hours of the day, so there’s no shortage of opportunity to embarrass yourself before you’ve really hit your stride.

SIDE QUESTION RELATING TO SIDE NOTE: So why put it out there?

ANSWER: Because writing’s communication, and it’s lovely to have an audience, even a hostile one.

But I digress – something I’m prone to in the blog, but be reassured, not something I allow in the books.

COROLLARY TO LAST SIDE NOTE: Hmm. Maybe I should he says, doing that disgusting, kissy-kissy thing with his dove, nose-to-beak.

Anyway, this next book is set in the 1850s. It’s a picaresque tale of two brothers separated and then reconciled (I know – you can totally see that sooty dove slamming beak-first into the deck). Well. I’m at the bit where they’ve found each other again – and something needs to happen. From the brothers point of view, they’ve been through a lot, okay? Parental death, fire, transportation, forced labour, kidnap by bushrangers and so on and so on – the Kindle gives you no idea of the extent – 50% of how much, exactly? – and I know they’d be more than happy to leave it there, and find a cute little cabin together, with rabbits and alfalfa (wait, what?) and have a little peace and quiet for one goddamn minute. But nope. Here I am at the joyful moment of reconciliation, and already I’m getting scratchy. Something has to happen. This is the climax of the book. I can’t have them sitting round a camp fire reminiscing and making happy plans. So I spent the dog walk this morning thinking over all the things that could go wrong for them. Maybe a baddy from earlier on could make a surprise return. One of them could be arrested, imprisoned. And then a daring rescue. Something and then something and then pow! Pay-off. As a concession, maybe a happy ending – of sorts. (This is the 21st century; I think there’s actually a law against happy endings).

And that’s when it struck me. What a tyrant! Worse, actually. A God-like tyrant. Someone with the power to create life and manipulate the world. If there was a storm, I could totally write a whale to surface and keep the boat afloat with his nose and then run them over to some delightfully cliche island ruled by giant comedy crabs who can talk and sing and do tap and who end up venerating the sailors as gods &c &c. (Writes this down for later – along with possible joke: ‘confuses venerate with venereal’). But no. I torture my characters with appalling runs of bad luck. And for what? A good read. (A good read! Yeah, right! Again with the sooty dove, wheezing on the foc’sle whilst I spoon feed it honey and warm water, cursing whatever it is that lurks so powerfully and malignantly beyond the horizon).

I promise I’ll revisit those coping strategies just as soon as I’ve finished this post.

But anyway. That’s what you’ve got to do as a writer. You’ve got to make believable characters, and then make life difficult for them. Because although I was lying about the law, and actually you are allowed happy endings, you’ve got to earn them first. Which is probably just like life, when you think about it.

So what am I getting so antsy about?

ANSWER: I’m waiting on some doves…

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a ten month stretch

Ten months shy of a hundred.

From the way Miles is sitting, though, I’d say this was less of an ambition and more of a curse. Miles has a graven look to his face, his eyes heavy, his mouth a perfect downward arc, as if he was resigned to sit out those ten months with his arms folded, not moving at all, and then at midnight on the last day, when the last chime has sounded, he’ll stand up, and quietly leave the room.

At this rate, though, I can’t see him making the end of the week. He suffered a fall a few months ago, and although he wasn’t hurt, it’s made him fearful of any kind of movement. Now we’re at the point where the carers are virtually lifting him from the chair to the commode and back again. His eating and drinking have tailed off, too, and it’s a good day if he can finish a beaker of cold tea or half a boiled egg delivered into his mouth one slow spoonful at a time. He’s developing pressure sores. The doctor has called us in to see what we can do.

Miles’ daughter, Janice has reached the end of her ability to cope. She lives some distance away, and has been spending the majority of her time sleeping upstairs in the room she left fifty years ago. Her own life is on hold now whilst she helps the carers and struggles to make things better. She’s utterly worn down from all the day-to-day indignities, the pleading and the hectoring, the constant bargaining.
‘The worst thing is how guilty I feel,’ she says, dabbing at her eyes in the next room.
‘You’re doing an amazing job,’ I tell her. ‘You’re dad’s lucky to have you.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘He isn’t. Now and again I’ll catch myself looking at him and thinking Go! Just go! I mean – he’s not happy. He doesn’t want all this. But what can you do? And all the while everyone’s traipsing through the house, checking his blood, changing his meds stringing him out even longer, and I can’t see any end to it. Am I bad for saying this? I am, aren’t I? I’m bad. I shouldn’t be thinking these things about my own father.’
She cries some more.
I tell her that it’s perfectly understandable and okay to think or say these things. It’s natural. Anyone would. I tell her I think she should seriously think about organising some respite care for Miles, to give herself a break as much as anything.
‘Where would that be? A nursing home?’
‘I think so, yes. Miles needs a level of care now he wouldn’t get anywhere else.’
‘I promised him he wouldn’t end up in a home.’
‘It’s only temporary. It’ll give yourself space to think and get your strength back. You’ve got to look after your health, too, you know.’
‘But a home?’
She screws the handkerchief into a ragged ball and tosses it into the bin with practised ease.
‘Well,’ she sighs. ‘I’ll think about it. For now, though, how can we make things better for Dad here?’
We talk about hospital beds, stand-aids, double-up carers four times a day, physio exercises he can do in his chair, that sort of thing.
‘Gosh!’ she says, then shakes her head. ‘Don’t get me wrong. We’re so grateful and everything. But you wouldn’t want it for yourself, would you?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I probably wouldn’t.’
‘But what else is there?’
‘I don’t know. It’s difficult.’
We go back into the front room. Miles is still sitting there, as graven as before.
‘Alright?’ I say, going over and resting my hand on his arm.
‘Yes thank you,’ he says, and then turns his head to stare out of the window, at the wide, sunlit street, and the day that’s just starting into life.

owl henry

Henry is surrounded by paintings of owls. An owl on a branch, an owl staring out from the hollow of a tree, an owl with a mouse in its beak, an owl silhouetted against the moon.
‘I paint other things’ he says, nodding to a cheetah. ‘But there’s something about owls…’
The paintings aren’t all that good, it has to be said (not out loud, obviously). They’re over-coloured and a bit flat. I get the impression Henry learned to paint owls in the same way Walt Disney learned to draw Mickey: one circle for the head, and two smaller circles for the ears, perfectly round whichever way the mouse was pointing.
‘Great!’ I tell him. ‘You’re quite an artist.’
‘It’s good to have a skill,’ he says. ‘I’m lucky. I’ve always been good at art.’
He rolls up his sleeve so I can put on the blood pressure cuff.
‘You know, when Susan was in hospital I was pretty much living there. I used to tuck myself away in a corner, and I’d make drawings of everything – you know, the drip stands, the beds, all the comings and goings. The nurses would come over, and they’d say What are you up to there, Henry? And I’d say: Well, I forgot the camera, so I thought I’d try drawing instead. And they’d look at the drawings, and they’d say: You don’t need a camera, Henry! These are as good as any photograph…’
He smiles at me as I take the cuff off and he rolls his sleeve back down.
‘All right?’ he says.
‘Fine. Everything’s fine.’
‘Good!’ he says. ‘I feel fine, I must say. Everyone’s made such a fuss of me. It really is quite lovely.’
‘You’re worth it – as the advert says.’
‘What advert?’
‘That make-up one. Loreal. I think.’
‘Oh,’ he says, and watches me for a moment as I write down his observations.
‘What do you think of my paintings?’ he says.
‘Yeah! They’re great! Did you do that cheetah, as well?’
‘I did. But owls are mostly what I do.’
He folds his arms and proudly surveys the room, left to right, as smoothly and comprehensively as – well – an owl.
‘You know – when Susan was in hospital I was practically living up there,’ he says looking straight at me again. ‘I used to tuck myself away in a corner, and I’d make drawings of everything, all the drip stands and the beds and all the people coming and going. And the nurses, they’d come over and stand around me, and they’d say: What are you doing there, Henry? And I’d say: Well, I forgot the camera, so I thought I’d try drawing instead. So they’d look at my drawings, and they’d say: You don’t need a camera, Henry! These are as good as any photograph!’
‘They sound like a nice bunch of nurses.’
‘Oh they were!’ he says. ‘They really were.’
I sign off the sheet and put my things away.
‘Well – that’s me finished, Henry. Do you have any questions before I go?’
He raises his eyebrows, takes the tiniest beakful of water from the glass by his side, carefully puts it back, and then smiles at me. And I just know what he’s going to say.

 

 

lucky, buddy & me

Lucky’s a hard man.

You can tell immediately – not so much from the ruin of his body, his arms and shoulders the texture of old stilton, veined and nicked and scabbed from years of drug abuse; not from his ill-fitting false teeth, his gold chains or his blurry tattoos – hula hula girl, flaming skull, Ace of Spades; nor from the casually terrible things he says, stories of violence, vendettas, feuds, armed robberies and the like. And it’s not something you’d simply extrapolate from the block-cap note in the front of his folder: DOUBLE-UP VISITS IN THE PRESENCE OF SUPPORT WORKERS ONLY. No. Without any of these things you’d still be able to tell. He carries it deep in his eyes – an unsettling, milky blue, as if the poison of all that hostility rose up over the years and tainted the purer colour. I can imagine him turning those eyes on the face of enemy, warden or wall with the same languorously hostile expression. For now, though, he seems to have accepted my role in this particular scenario, and offers out his paw for the SATS probe with the weighty insouciance of a tiger, claws retracted.

‘The doctor? Nah mate! They don’t send doctors out to me no more. The last one, he said Your old man’s very ill. Oh yes? I said. What the fack’s wrong with the ol’ cant now? I’m afraid he’s got cancer he said. He’s not got long to live much longer. Is that right? I said. So I knocked him out…’

‘The hardest thing about doing time’s the first week. Once you done that it’s easy. Piece of piss. You get in the routine, know what I mean? I’ve done plenty. Most of my life I’ve been one place or the other. You name it, I’ll tell you the crack. I could write a book. Anyway, where I come from, half of us end up inside. Walking round the block was like walking round the old manor…’

‘I think the worst thing they ever did was cut down on the heroin. They jes’ went an made a whole lot of work for themselves. No-one’s going to make any trouble smacked out of their heads, are they? Now they got all this other gear going in, fake stuff that winds you up and makes you punchy. You don’t want that when you’re all banged up, d’you? Stands to reason. But they don’t think like that, do they?’

‘I been in trouble since I was a kid. I got sent to borstal for stabbing-up me eldest brother. I was ready to go and stab him up good n’proper when I got out, ‘cept I was on a bank job and got sent down for a stretch before I got the chance. I haven’t forgotten him though. Once these legs are better I’ll be payin’ the cant a little visit…’

– o O o –

Back in the support workers’ office for the debrief, a mad looking labradoodle is wandering round with a green and yellow plastic turtle. He goes from person to person, squeaking the toy a couple of times, dropping it at our feet, and then backing away with his mouth open and his tail wagging, looking up at our faces and then back down at the toy , as if he can’t believe we’re not as mad for it as he is.

Buddy! Don’t be such a pain!’ says one of the support workers, but she throws the toy for him anyway, and he races after it. After a while he brings it over to me, watching me with an insane expression as I pick it up and turn it over and over in my hands.

I have an image of Buddy behind bars, lights out, squeaking the turtle mournfully, like a harmonica.

I’m glad he’s here, though. Buddy’s like me. I don’t think he’d cope all that well in prison, turtle or otherwise.

‘There you go, Buddy!’ I say, lobbing his toy back over the other side of the office.

We laugh as he crashes after it.

charlie

I’ve never been one for eating
Charlie was though
he had big appetites
we went out for the day
Charlie had a disgusting hunk of huss
I had fish cake
couldn’t finish it
Charlie cleaned up
as per usual
I lost an earring
eighteen carat, beautiful
nobody seen it
not what they said anyways
went to the jewellers
I didn’t like it
I could see guns
Charlie said it was okay
treat myself to some danglies
a hundred and twenty pound the pair
and that was then
we’ll claim the tax back at the border
Charlie said
we never did
don’t know why

fugue shopping

Hello. My name’s Jim, I’m a writer, and I’m easily distracted.

Phew. Feels good to get it out there. Although – I’m guessing it’s not too much of a shock. I can’t imagine you choked on your flat white when you read that (Digression #1: Why am I so obsessed with flat whites? Is it because I fundamentally don’t know what they are?).

(Digression #2: I suspect there’ll be a lot more digressions in this post, so it might be quicker, cleaner and probably kinder just to give them a letter. So this is actually D#2).

Of course, the cure for a digressive personality is just to get the hell on with it. (Is digressive a word? I’ll have to look it up….. yes, it is.  Adjective // characterized by digression; tending to depart from the subject. And no, that wasn’t a digression, that was a pause for research. I’m not about to start labeling them. I’d be here all day). And I suppose it’s in that infinitesimal gap between The Digression and The Getting The Hell On With It that all the pain resides.

Good news is, I’m cured. For the last three days I’ve managed to be disciplined. Up early / dog walk / 1000 words on the novel. Only then have I allowed myself to think about Tweeting, or writing a poem, or a blog post. And that feels great. Because as I’ve learned in the past, 1000 words isn’t so hard to achieve, and soon stacks up in a satisfying way. The editing phase will almost certainly be a source of pain, too, but it’s cleaner and more virtuous. You’ve overcome the tyranny of the blank screen. You’ve established the characters, the story, The Big Idea. You’ve got material to shape (scalpel, chainsaw, whatever). So an altogether more constructive phase, then – although, having said that, half of it usually ends up on the cutting room floor, and I weep for the days of work it represents.

Sometimes you can salvage a short story from the sweepings, or worst case scenario, a poem about a funny-looking dog.

(D#3: I made that up about the funny-looking dog. I don’t think I’ve ever edited something like that out of one of my books. Why would I? It almost guarantees a sale. However, there was a funny-looking dog over the woods this morning. A small, light brown terrier with glowing eyes, immaculate despite all the mud. How? Thinking back on it, it was very floaty, so it may actually have been a ghost. There’s a shrine to a dog tied round one of the trees near the stream. It’s probably him.)

(D#4: There aren’t that many stories about ghostly animals. Is that a religious thing? I just had to Google it, and found this on a Catholic website:

Animals and plants can’t do anything which transcends the limitations of matter. Although some animals seem clever, they don’t actually possess conceptional intelligence. They can’t, for instance, conceive of the abstract notion of justice.

Well. They’ve never seen Lola use the power of her mind to literally force me into giving her a duck stick. I mean – she’s positively Obi-Wan Kenola. Which sounds more like a delicious Italian pastry than a Jedi knight.)

(D#5: Sorry. That last digression had another digression tagged on the end, which is unnecessarily complicated, but I can’t help it – it’s the nature of the beast. I suppose technically speaking I should have listed it as a D#4+1 – but that sounds too much like coding, and I can hear you sighing from here, so – moving on).

Anyway – I only sat down to write about something I saw in Sainsbury’s today.

(D#6+1, possibly 2: I knew someone had to go to Sainsbury’s today, and I didn’t mind. So long as I got the dog walk out of the way [tick], wrote my 1000 words [tick], Tweeted some pics [tick] took Kath to the station and had lunch with the girls [tick][tick], I’d be fine to do the supermarket run. The other thing was I thought it might help me straighten out a few plot points. I could mull over the predicament the main character was in, and figure out what he’d do next. Chores are supposed to be good for that. Like hoovering, or ironing. So I can only assume that Ernest Hemingway must’ve been some kind of domestic goddess.)

The thing was, I didn’t get any thinking done in Sainsbury’s – at least, not anything related to the novel. The thing that gripped me was: Who is that guy? and Is he real?

Background information: I think today was OAP day. Just guessing. It felt as if there’d been some kind of public broadcast on the radio, and everyone over seventy had shuffled en masse to Sainsbury’s. Negotiating the trolley through the aisles was like paddling a canoe round a slalom. (D#7: My search history today would look good – Do dogs make ghosts? Obi-Wan Kenobi & canoe slalom).

But what really freaked me out was this guy I kept coming across. He was quite extraordinary-looking, like a giant, gloomy frog in tweeds and brogues, clutching on to the handle of his trolley and standing there, utterly motionless. I half-expected him to fill his trolley by snapping his tongue out and whipping the cans off the shelves. And there he was in Dairy. And again, in Eggs. And there he was, completely still, in Crisps and Snacks, his head pointing up, his wide mouth curving down, waiting. The only thing I could think was that a team of model-makers were sniggering and carrying him from point to point whenever I passed. (D#8: Dangerous territory, I know, to think that the world is being manipulated just to make you feel uneasy. But honestly – is it?)

So I didn’t get any thinking done about that tricky plot point. And no doubt when I sit down to write my next 1000 words, I’ll end up with my hands as frozen on the keyboard as that man’s hands on his trolley in Sainsbury’s. But then – I bet he’s a writer. Maybe that’s how it’s done. You stand there thinking just as hard and as long as you need to, and everyone simply has to reach round you for their bananas.

Which is probably why he’s such a successful writer, and can afford such fancy clothes.

But I digress.

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