Tuesday 05 December

the creative mistake

It’s as true of creative work as anything else: Use it or lose it.

For instance, every year I like to do a linocut print for the Christmas card. Nothing too fancy, just a simple pattern I can mass produce and kick out in time for the last second-class post. Linocut’s pretty straightforward. It’s soft, easy to work, and it doesn’t have the grain and splintering issues of wood. But what helps my printing more than any of this, and what I’ve come to rely on over the years, are creative mistakes.

Whenever I make something, whether it’s a piece of writing, a printing or even a song, I rely on things going wrong. As hard as I try to steer things, plans never pay off. The finished product is always different, and almost always better than I could have hoped for at the beginning. In printing, because of my lack of skill, odd patterns emerge that suggest things I would have struggled to come up with from scratch. The most productive thing I can do is look out for the mistakes and use them to guide the rest of the project.

I find that being able to use mistakes and not to be put off by them is as much a skill – if not more – than the actual business of wielding a gouge or crafting a sentence. It’s definitely something that withers if you don’t feed it with sufficient practice, and this year I was painfully aware that I’d been away from the cutting mat for  too long. I was still making mistakes, of course, but none of them felt remotely productive, and the only thing that was profiting from all my cussing and swearing was the recycling bin.IMG_5287

Still, I stuck with it and finally managed to arrive at something I’m happy to send out. So here it is, Happy Christmas! And may all your mistakes be creative!

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Thursday 30 November

blinkers on / blinkers off

First thing to say: writing is hard work. But then again, it’s not actually what you might call hard work.

Top five worst jobs ever:

  1. Peeling onions in a pickled onion factory. By hand. At the end of the day I was paid with a token that I could redeem for cash. I threw the token in a ditch, my clothes in the trash.
  2. Hoovering the landings of an exclusive apartment block. Each identical. It got so I couldn’t be sure whether the lift had actually moved or not. There was a boy who came out of his flat and stood there, eating a chocolate bar, watching me pointlessly hoover the immaculate carpets. A moment of existential despair.
  3. Painting the outside of an apartment block (not the same apartment block). Winter.
  4. Painting the inside of an underground car park. Winter.
  5. Working in a pirate-themed adventure playground. Dressed as a pirate. Spent all day rescuing kids from the rigging, the tentacles of the inflatable octopus, the ball pit. Juggling plastic fish, cleaning up vomit. Sparring with my alcoholic co-pirate. Taking hourly turns on Captain Nemo’s submarine (the windows filled with water when we submerged, then a screen at the front showed footage of sharks and squid nicked from the telly). Rescuing kids from Captain Nemo’s submarine.

So from my own experience I know for a fact there are worst things I could be doing with my life.

One of the problems with writing is that the routine you have to get into to get the work done can be quite deadening, or disorienting. It’s like a cart horse wearing blinkers. No distractions, just focused on pulling the cart, covering the distance. The danger is, if your blinkers are too effective, you’re in danger of either wandering off track, or forgetting exactly what it is you were setting out to do. Just lately, I’ve been out of blinkers, looking around, wondering where the hell I am, and what the big idea was – the metaphorical equivalent of shying in the traces. (Is it very apparent I haven’t the faintest idea about horses?) Which is a fancy way of saying: I got the last edit of the book done, and don’t know if I’ll ever manage to write a decent book. (see previous posts).

It’s okay, though. I’m calming down. Getting other stuff written – which I like, even though it doesn’t feel as ‘substantial’ as the day to day business of writing a novel. I’ll definitely finish The Fabulous Fears (a huge thanks to everyone who’s offered to Beta read it for me), if for no other reason than I feel I owe it to the characters. I’m trying to write a radio play now, based on my experiences in the ambulance service (another hard job, but then again, not nearly as hard as teaching English in a secondary school *shudder*).

On with the blinkers…

getting into drag

RuPaul’s Drag Race is such gorgeous, funny, scurrilous, perfectly balanced entertainment. I could happily binge watch a thousand episodes back-to-backless.

 

Thanks for reading, and all your support!

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Thursday 23 November

crowning

I don’t know what was more painful yesterday when I had my crown done: the drilling, or the squabbling between the dentist and her assistant.
‘What are you doing now?’ she says, glancing up through her spattered face guard at the young girl in the corner.
‘I’m spraying the tray.’
‘Well don’t spray the tray. You don’t need to spray the tray. It makes no difference.’
‘But…’
‘No buts. Just pass me the something-technical. Not that one, the other one. Thank you.’
The way she says thank you. Clamped more tightly than my head.
‘And then something-else-technical please.’ *sigh* ‘No. That’s the other-technical-thing. I want the something-else-technical please.’
Which turns out to be a thunderingly slow drill bit, the kind of thing you might use to scour a tunnel through a mountain, or maybe one of those heavy floor polishers, miniaturised, studded with diamonds.
The dentist frowns at the assistant whilst she snaps it off and snaps on something even more terrifying, dropping the other one into her tray with a clatter.
‘You don’t need to change your gloves,’ she says. ‘Why are you changing your gloves?’
‘I thought…’
‘Keep the gloves. We’re not made of gloves.’
She sighs.
The assistant moves to the other side of the room.
More drilling.
‘Suction!’ says the Dentist. ‘My patient cannot swallow.’
The assistant hurries back over and jabs me in the uvula with the hoovula.
I can’t help gagging.
‘Eeeezzzzy now,’ says the Dentist. ‘There you go! That’s got it!’

dog training

Walking with Lola over the woods today. A stout, bush-hatted, wax-cotton jacketed woman appears, striding stick-first through the rain, accompanied by a black and white collie cross that even from here I can tell is happy to be out despite the weather. As soon as the dog sees us it comes bounding over, instantly nose to nose with Lola, both of them doing that excited dog thing, where they straighten their front legs and make feinting half-jumps, like they’re practising CPR, tails up. I’m happy for them to run around after each other for a while, but the woman starts shouting: Candy! No! Come here, Candy! Come here!
I want to shout back that it’s okay – but I don’t, because I remember when we had our first dog, Buzz, and what a scrappy dog he was, picking fights for no apparent reason, despite the fact we took him to dog obedience classes, where – of course – he was the best behaved dog there.
‘Diamond dog, your dog’ said the trainer.
And all we could take from that was that it was all our fault. Buzz wasn’t scrappy with anyone else. He took his cue from us.
Anyway, the point is, whenever Buzz ran up to another dog, the dog’s owner would invariably shout It’s okay! He’s fine with other dogs! And what we wanted to shout back was Yours, may be…

Candy’s owner has planted her walking stick in the ground and is yelling now.
Candy! Come here! I said – COME HERE! in a surprisingly harsh tone, like a prison guard on a work detail, levering shells into a shotgun.
Even Lola seems cowed.
Candy obviously recognises the change in tone. She looks at Lola, then at me, then at Lola again, and is suddenly away. Seconds later I watch her sit at the woman’s frog-eyed wellies, looking up.
I expect to see the woman lean down and fuss Candy for being such a good dog coming back (and I’m all set to give them both a cheery wave). What actually happens is that the woman wags a finger in Candy’s face: Why don’t you come back when I tell you to? she says, which doesn’t seem at all fair. Lesson over, she pulls her walking stick out of the ground ready to carry on, but then stops again and looks back down at the dog, as if Candy has added something only she could hear.
Because I said so! snaps the woman – and the two of them move away into the gloom.

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Friday 18 November

the truth about the bird

I’m not sure about Twitter.

Sometimes I think it’s been a great creative spur, inspiring me to look at things in more detail, at mushrooms and trees, patterns of light, found poetry, birdsong after the rain, a ventilation duct that looks like a steampunk worm. I love the way it challenges me to come up with haiku poems, scraps of conversation I’d otherwise forget, short descriptions, serious notes, trashy nothings. I love the way it makes me feel connected to people doing the same sort of thing, all over the world.twitter logo

But some days the whole thing flips on its beak. Suddenly I’m using Fritter, not Twitter, and I panic that I’ve fallen under the spell of some giant and insatiable chick, incessantly demanding food, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and I’m flying backwards and forwards looking for anything remotely digestible to drop into its craw. I worry that I’m actually morphing into this crazy blue chick myself – living on a sugary diet of likes and retweets, dashed when my follower count goes down, happy when it goes up, even though I have no idea who these followers or dropped followers are, and even though I suspect that many of them are living like me, in a nest of scraps somewhere, with a phone camera, snapping anything of interest.

Today I love it, though.

And, of course – hashtag irony – this post will feature on my feed.

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Friday 10 November

the ungrabbed

Okay, I’ll admit it.

The heart of my writing routine has frozen and fallen clean away and I’m in a novel-writing, word-count-of-zero, ink-arsed funk.

No exaggeration.

Why?

Because three months ago when I sent out the final draft of my latest book to beta-readers, only three got back.

My wife Kath and her sister, Nicky gave me a bunch of extensive and useful notes. My mum was a little more concise. (As a lump hammer.)

‘I was halfway through chapter two when I put it to one side’ she said. ‘It just didn’t grab me.

This from a woman whose tastes range from Jane Austen to Lee Child. Someone who’d read the label on a sauce bottle if there was nothing else to hand. And have an opinion.

It just didn’t grab me

Everyone else – everyone who isn’t actually related to me – has remained perfectly, eerily quiet.

I may as well have taken the book and dropped it down a well. At least I’d have heard a splash.

Nothing.

Nothing comes of nothing.

The book took a couple of years to write – which has nothing to do with how well it reads, of course, but gives a little context. I have to admit it didn’t exactly flow. It took me a while to zone-in on what the story actually was. It started off as a zombie adventure for young adults, but I got as far as writing the big climax – Valerie fighting her way along the promenade at Brighton – when I thought this is bullshit. I suddenly realised that the zombies she was struggling to dispatch were probably all the doubts I was having about the project dressed-up by my unconscious to look like zombies. So I took a breath, scrapped pretty much all of it, except for the character of Valerie, an idea about her family, and started again. And once I’d relaxed, and started writing in a style and format that seemed more natural for me, I thought I was doing good work. I even cried writing one of the scenes. Seven edits later and my book The Fabulous Fears felt ready to send out and be read.

Nothing.

I’ve schooled myself to be hard-nosed about writing. I’m certainly not the needy, pink and unshelled writing creature I used to be. I’ve hardened myself up to the business of putting my stuff out into the world. But even so, I’m finding it hard to shake the feeling that this is way more than just a slow start. Maybe this is a sign, one of those moments you’re given to realise that somehow, somewhere, a few years back, you wandered way off track.

Of course, it’s not as bad as I’m making out. I’ve been writing other stuff at the same time. This blog, the regular Voices posts about my day job (notes from the front-line of community health), poems and so on. I’ve just started a radio script based on my experiences in the ambulance. It’s just – The Fabulous Fears was supposed to be that thing, the central support, the big deal. I know it still needs work. Not a vast amount, I’m hoping. Some re-pointing here and there. A fine-tipped brush, not a fire axe.

So here’s the thing. If there’s anyone out there reading this blog who fancies being a beta reader, let me know! The reward? An effusive thank you in the acknowledgements section of the book, if it ever comes out, and a reciprocal promise to read something you’ve written and give feedback. All you need do is drop me an email and I can send you the .pdf by return.

Whaddya say?

I only hope not nothing.

(An abomination of a sentence, true, but I have to admit, for some strange reason, it grabs me...)

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Sunday 29 October

my spiritual vacuum

Well – it’s almost Halloween, I’m hoovering, and I’m thinking about ghosts. (Hoovering’s a good time to think about most things).

I wonder if there’s ever been a ghostly survey? A spreadsheet somewhere, in Exorcel, with columns for the age of ghost at death, indoor or outdoor, private property or public space, self harm, illness, murder, natural causes. And then probably a whole subset of columns under the murder heading: thrown down well, bricked up in wall, shot, stabbed, hanged, clubbed, poisoned (God knows how many subsections that would need), set upon by dogs and so on. You could be scrolling right for eternity. But if they’d set up a handy function on another sheet, you could skip all the detail and go straight for the totals, particularly: Unjustly taken before time, or maybe Unfinished business.

Because they’re the ones I worry about the most.

It’s always struck me as doubly unfair. Not only did they have to suffer an untimely death, but they’ve also been condemned to hang around for all eternity – often in unwholesome environments – scaring the living bejesus out of innocent folk who’ve really got nothing at all to do with it, and who’d be pretty sympathetic, no doubt, once they’d had a cup of tea and a hug and five minutes to think about it.

I suppose you could argue that it’s not about judgement or vengeance at all. That’s a religious spin on the situation. Perhaps it’s much more prosaic than that. Perhaps the spirit is just confused, having died in such a traumatic way that the normal processes of transition have been corrupted, and left the poor soul in a state of blurry limbo, forever skipping back to that time, without understanding why, or that everyone else has moved on, even if they haven’t.

If that is the case, we shouldn’t have anything to fear from these spirits. They can’t do us harm because they’re too confused to do much about it other than weep and wail and wander up and down, blowing whatever shreds of evanescent sense they have blundering through doors that were long-ago bricked up, or rattling a few pots. I suppose you could argue that in their confusion they might think you actually did have something to do with that whole tossing down the well incident, even though the Count had never been known to hoover the stairs in his onesie. So all you’d need to do if it appeared and threatened you would be to stand your ground and say: Spirit – Depart! I am not the Count you think I am, or something, maybe in Latin, and have your Driving Licence ready to prove it. (It’s easy to be brave about these things in the abstract, when you’re hoovering).

The trouble is, of course, ghosts aren’t known for their reasoning skills. They’re primal essences, energy fields in human form, dragging their pain through the deep hollows of the night (I’m imagining Bela Lugosi saying this shit), lost amongst the shimmering lattices of this world and the next, searching, searching, for something lost, so cruelly, so very long ago…spooky oak

I’m so spooked I’m holding the nozzle of the hoover straight out in front of me. (But hey! It’s a good hoover. It’s got so many settings, one of them’s bound to work.)

Happy Halloween!

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Wednesday 18

it’s the end of the world as we know it

Suddenly there’s a strange light beyond the office windows, like someone climbed up two storeys when I was on the phone and stuck sheets of yellow plastic across the glass.
‘Storm coming,’ says Helen, standing over there, peering out. And she’s right – but not any storm I’ve seen before, something quieter and more abstract.
‘Apocalyptic,’ she says.
‘I’ve still got visits.’
‘Good luck.’

Down in the car park, I see one of the groundsmen walking towards me. Even though I’ve worked in the old hospital two years now, I still don’t know his name. He always seems so grumpy, plodding along carrying or pushing something, always with an expression as burdensome as his load.
‘Looking pretty stormy!’ I say, as I unlock my car.
‘You’re the third person to tell me that,’ he says.
I find his rooted cynicism helps, though. Here we have this strange and unsettling weather feature, but to the groundsman it’s all just one more thing to piss him off. I bet if we met at the edge of the world, everything and everyone in flames, a terrifying vortex swirling open and dragging the very universe into its maw, he’d be there, plodding along the rim of it all, waving his hand at the Apocalypse: ‘Tossers’.

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By the time I reach the patient’s address, the sky has taken on a brooding tone, the sun burning through it all with liquid fire. Birds are prematurely hurrying back to their roosts, and the street lamps are coming on. The whole thing feels more like an eclipse, like we’re moving towards Totality.

On the sea front, people are stopping in threes and fours, drawn out of their cars to take pictures.

When I go up the steps to the front door of the block where my patient lives, there’s a smart middle-aged couple with shopping bags and suitcases waiting there. The woman is on the phone to someone; the guy looks up and down the street. I’m guessing they’re Airbnb people, confronted with the difference between the web description and the thing itself – a discrepancy made worse by the dark and generally unwholesome atmosphere of the storm.
‘Do you know Dean?’ the woman says to me, hanging up. ‘We’ve been trying to get into the penthouse flat.’
‘No. I’m a nursing assistant come to see a patient. In the basement.’
‘Oh,’ she says, and shares a look with her partner. Patient? Basement? That wasn’t in the overview. They couldn’t look more alarmed if I’d taken out a tin of paint and began swiping a big red cross on the door.
The partner of my patient appears after a few buzzes on the intercom. A slouching, middle-aged man with a prickly chin and a a squint-eyed leer,  like Popeye ten years into retirement, suffering the effects of all the lost ‘spinach’ years. He’s still in his pyjamas even though it’s late afternoon, and he stands on the threshold, scratching the side of his belly, and frowning.
‘What d’yee want?’ he says, distributing a furious eye amongs the three of us, then glancing up at the sky.
‘Jaysus feckin’ chris will yee look at tha,’’ he says.

And, of course, we do.

 

the dentally damned

I suppose I’ve reached an age when I can’t expect a trip to the dentist without needing some kind of remedial work, largely because of all the crappy fillings I had when I was younger. In the seventies, things were different. Dentists were a rowdy, lawless bunch, The Cavity in the Wall gang, hanging out of their windows, touting for trade, drilling you full of amalgam if you dared to walk past, whistling.

We had a terrible dentist then, Mr Parkin, a slick-haired, sleepy-eyed psychopath who treated cavities as playrooms. Put your hand up if it hurts and I’ll stop he used to say. But of course, when you put your hand up, he wouldn’t. Almost done… he’d trill above the grinding and crunching of the bit. Which is why I kicked him in the nuts once. It didn’t seem to bother him, though. Probably because he’d had those filled, too. He had a picture stuck to the ceiling above the chair. To distract you from your agony. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Heironymous Bosch.

So it’s taken me a few years to be able to go into a dentist’s without feeling faint.

I have to say it helps that our local practice is housed in a converted church, with a certain residual prayerfulness about the rafters. The receptionists act a bit like nuns, too, speaking in confessional whispers, moving slowly and precisely. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them chanting when they review what treatment sessions I need to get booked. It’s all pretty spiritual.

But who needs God when you have lidocaine?

The dentists at this practice have always been good, stabbing up my gums so effectively that when they eventually set to work, up to their arms and elbows in my mouth like scrubbed mechanics in the bonnet of a car, it’s like it’s happening to someone else, and I can either look over their shoulder and offer advice, or sit in the corner and flip through Hello! magazine instead. (Which I did in the waiting room before I went in, by the way. I read an article about the wife of an international shoe plutocrat. The photoshoot was on their luxury yacht, and I must admit felt a bit sorry for her. The shoetocrat wasn’t there, probably away having his conscience laundered, so she was on her own in that gigantic, sterile, curiously empty ship, holding two fluffy white bichon frises in her arms, either on the deck, in the games room, by the hot tub or in the gym, and no-one else was there to take the dogs off her or give her a drink or a massage or anything, not even the Captain.)

My current dentist is the best yet. She’s a tall Egyptian woman with sad eyes and a laconic manner. There’s a weariness about her that I find curiously reasurring, as if she’s spent many years dealing in teeth, and still isn’t any nearer to extracting anything like a resilient, workable philosophy.

For example, at one point she took some x-rays of my mouth. When they were ready she tugged down her face mask and turned to me.
‘Are you interested to see this?’ she said, pointing to a dark smudge beneath the hard white of a crown, upper left second molar.
‘Interested and horrified in equal measure.’
She laughed.
‘This is decay,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘I will need to re-crown the tooth. I will do this by chopping the old crown in half, clearing out the decay, filling it, then making a new crown to go on top. What do you say to that?’
‘Is there an alternative?’
‘No. There is no alternative. You do nothing, one day the tooth shatter into pieces.’
‘Will it be difficult?’
‘For me – no. For you…’ She trails off, and shrugs.
‘Okay. So my next question is – how much?’
‘On NHS, approximately two hundred and forty pounds.’
‘Does that include VAT?’
She laughs again – which is great. You should always try to make the dentist laugh. If they like you, they might give you more lidocaine.
‘No VAT,’ she says. ‘We don’t charge VAT on teeth.’
‘I suppose that’s some good news, then.’
‘It is something.’
‘Okay, then. Let’s do it.’
‘Okay.’
Whilst she finished writing the ticket out, I ask her if I’m the worst mouth she’s seen today.
‘You? No,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘One man, he came in here, and he sat down, and he said I haven’t been to the dentist ever. Ever. In my whole life. And now I have pain here, here, here and here.’
She stares at me with those sad eyes.
‘Where to start with this?’ she says. ‘Where to start? I am dentist, not miracle worker.’

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