The story about Alf & Picasso

A day off at last.

It’s pouring with rain, though, so the early morning dog walk is delayed. Instead I have a cup of coffee and take a gentle stroll around Twitter & Instagram, taking the air with my virtual boots and my virtual dogs and my tablet cocked on my arm, before I put the cup in the sink and turn myself reluctantly towards the stairs, ready to go up and write.

The rain has stopped, though. I can take Lola out after all.  Lola doesn’t seem that keen, but it’s good to get it over with. Maybe it’ll freshen me up and help get my thoughts in order.

Turns out, Lola was right. The break in the weather is actually the eye of the hurricane. It’s exhilarating, in an annihilating kind of way, but we both get thoroughly soaked. I stand at the kitchen sink wringing water out of my pants.

It takes a while to dry off. Whilst I’m doing that, I notice the extractor fan over the oven is really greasy and horrible. I think it needs cleaning right away. It takes a lot of scrubbing, but after an hour I have to say it looks pretty incredible. I did a good job there. And so finally, with nothing else to do or say about it, I drag my bare and sorry carcass upstairs to the bedroom, and the monk-like wooden chair and table where I write. Lola follows me, throwing herself down on the rug to steam while I flip the laptop lid, rest my hands on the keys, and prepare.

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fig. 1

Facing me above the desk is a cork board I hung in a faraway and more innocent time when I was at grave risk of buying something like that. My plan was to cover it with things that might resonate with whatever project I was working on: photos, pictures, cuttings from magazines. I could pin up a sequence of cards to map out the structure of the book. Needless to say, the board is still bare, just the drawing Jess made of a little purple ghost I use for my avatar, a friendship band, a Sergeant Pepper pin, a Jack Skellington pin, a pen pin with the word ‘mightier’ down the middle, a business card with a typewriter motif (not mine), and the label that fell off the cat carrier (see fig 1.)

Sometimes I stare at the empty cork and try to see visions in the speckles of light and dark, but the truth is I don’t need cork for that. The bare wall’s just as good. I’ve had a lot of practice, being the sort to stare at nothing in particular quite happily for long periods of time. Maybe I should volunteer for a deep space trip. So long as there was a window, snacks, stationery, and a reading light for the sleeping shelf, I’d be more than happy. I wouldn’t mind a robot, too – who’d be bad-tempered but dry & hilarious. The misunderstandings we’d have, all the way to the Kuiper Belt. Oy Vey!

I take a breath to try to root myself in the moment, and in doing so realise  I haven’t done my morning meditation. I launch the app, do a ten minute session, followed by some exercises, press-ups, scrunchies (crunches?), stretches, etcetera, then a shower, then a cup of tea, then lunch, and when all that’s done and cleared away, drag myself back upstairs, flip the laptop, rest my fingers on the keys, wriggle them expectantly, and prepare.

The first thing I do is review how much progress I’ve made with the book. I play with the table of contents, trying to decide whether something I intend to write should be in bold and what I have written in italics. Make the change through all the documents. Then go back and undo it. Widen the margins. Enlarge the font. Then I take a breath, rest my fingers on the keys – and immediately realise that the single most important thing I have to do is Google Cubism.

The thing is, (and I admit, there is always a thing), I want to write up a little story I remember about Fred’s dad, Alf, something that happened to him in the war, and Cubism is a part of it.

One thing I do know about Picasso was that he had a Blue Period. To be honest, I’d rather he called it a Blue Phase. Blue Period just makes me think of those sanitary towel adverts where they demonstrate the absorbency of the pad by pouring windscreen wash all over it. The fact that Picasso also had a Pink Period doesn’t help, either. His Cubism Phase came immediately after and lasted a surprisingly long time – from 1907 to 25 – although I’d guess he was producing other, non-Cubic stuff at the same time, like ceramic hats and so on. The one thing I know about Picasso was that he was prolific as hell; the only thing that could distract him was a corked bottle of wine, or maybe a bull breaking free of the studio.

In this Cubist Phase, around 1910, Picasso painted the portrait of a guy called Ambroise Vollard. Ambroise was a French gallery owner who promoted a lot of artists early on in their career – Van Gogh, Gaugin, Renoir – so he ended up being one of the most painted men in the history of French art (although judging by the portraits, not the happiest).

It’s a brilliant study. Ambroise comes across as a brooding presence, simultaneously wide awake and profoundly asleep (a condition I sympathise with). It’s more than just the effect of looking at someone through a distorting prism; it’s as if Picasso’s taken a stack of angles and changes of light and perspective, and painted them into one dimension, so that you’re looking not just at a man sitting for his portrait, but at who he was, and thinks he is, and who he’d like to be.

So what does this have to do with Alf?

Alf was the hardest man I ever met. He was a pitiless, dessicated old Cockney, exiled to the Fens, bruised and bitter. He had his schemes and his dodges, his nice little earners, one of them being to work as a rose budder for six weeks every summer. He had a scarred face, flat and uncompromising, with a nose rolled so flat the nostrils were like two finger holes jabbed in a pie crust. His eyes were cut-in, ice blue. He smoked spitty little fags, talked out of the corner of his mouth – when he talked, that is. Mostly he just worked, trampling the roses down with an East End curse, brutally efficient, getting the work done, making progress.

I was terrified of him.

The story, then.

Alf was a despatch rider in Italy during the war. One day he was following a convoy of American trucks when they were ambushed. He ended up losing control of his bike and crashing face-first into a tailboard. Luckily, there was a young American surgeon travelling with the convoy. Ever since medical school, this surgeon had been reading up about maxillo-facial reconstruction, hoping to start his own exclusive practice after the war. He took Alf on as a project, using as his guide the photo of Alf from his military identity card.

‘Are you sure it weren’t a picture of one of them Picasso paintings instead?’ someone said.

And whether Alf smiled, or sneered, or did both at the same time, it was impossible to tell.

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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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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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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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