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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Sunday, 21 July 2013

Waiting or anticipating?

The most useful feature of an electric toothbrush is the two-minute timer, a nagging device to ensure we meet our dental norms.

Switching to electricity we quickly learn we lack dental conscientiousness. Our unpowered scrubbings didn't last anything like two minutes. I raised this when I discovered VR sang a hymn in her head that she said lasted the requisite period. A very long hymn I averred, as did others.

Can you estimate the passage of time? Because I own a Longines with a beautiful face (a gift from VR), I love looking at it. What time is it now? I ask myself. Often, if time has passed subconsciously, I am surprisingly accurate. But time's passage is elastic. In a doctor's waiting room a mason chips it out in stone. Two hours of The Killing, the Danish TV thriller series, gobbled up the quarter-hours uncaringly.

Looking over my life I note periods of expanded and compressed time. RAF time was all longueurs while the greedy periods between VR emerging off-duty from Charing Cross Hospital at 9.30 pm and her taking the tube home to Finchley Road flashed by.

"Time like an ever rolling stream" says the hymn. But it could be in flood or maybe there's a drought.

WIP Quote from my current novel, Hand Signals. The first para

"WORK at the hospital started at seven-thirty. Francine Embery rose early but not earlier than her mother. As Francine opened the bedroom door the smell of toast rose up the staircase. On the landing, on top of the laundry basket, lay a folded pile of smalls she'd worn over the weekend. Abstracted from her bedroom and hand laundered while she slept. Fran sighed."

10 comments:

Fedorovna said...

Nice depiction of mother/daughter relationship, but:'smalls'? Oh, Robbie, is this novel set in the 1930s?

Roderick Robinson said...

Fed: Many thanks for the comment. An enormous amount of effort goes into into the opening of any novel, less for the reader, more for the peace of mind of the author. The aim is of course impossible: to somehow set the tone for what follows in simple but - one hopes - vivid language. Saying something that is important but not atypically important. I have never been entirely satisfied with any of mine and here they are for comparison:

GORGON TIMES
He'd noticed the building on three previous visits and each time he’d found himself pausing and staring.

The jutting angles said it was architect-designed, that it hadn’t arrived as kit on a lorry. But what kind of architect specified buttresses – supposedly emblems of strength and security - in paper-thin aluminium pierced with wide circular holes? Or a central gazebo fashioned in clumsy square tubing?


OUT OF ARIZONA (née RISEN ON WINGS)
“Tell you what,” said Jana. “Why don’t I drive? Then I don’t have to sit on this.” She poked at the worn passenger seat.

Dirk ignored her, simply opened the driver’s door.

Jana stepped up into the van. “Of course, it’s our own fault. We turned this seat into a hammock. All that space in back yet I always put the delicate parcels here. It holds them like a shopping bag. A pity it doesn’t do the same thing for my butt.”


BLEST REDEEMER
It took time but she had plenty of time.

She also had a theory. That time wasn’t continuous but a set of fixed points – like a tube map - and that the bits in between might to all intents and purposes be discarded. That swathes of her past might be erased to make better sense of the present.


But in the end, after two or three dozen re-writes, you find yourself saying this is as good as I can make it. For what it's worth I thought the Hand Signals opening was the best, although it's only been re-written a handful of times and is not in any sense sacred.

Thus "smalls" is important and isn't there by accident. Nor am I saying you're wrong. I felt OK with it and I put it to VR and Occasional Speeder (present here this weekend) and both of them agreed with me. A single word, not necessarily definitive, covering bra, pants and socks. Out of date? Neither of my references thought so, but let's see if anyone else responds.

Interestingly this is not the first time I've discussed novel openings with a member of your family. Years ago I was having difficulty kicking off an earlier effort and mentioned this to PC. He seemed mildly interested. I stressed the need for simplicity and cited a quote from Graham Greene about the length of time it took him to come up the following which kicks off A Burnt-Out Case:

The captain in a white soutane stood by the open windows of the saloon reading his breviary. There was not enough air to stir the fringes of his heard.

The Crow said...

I didn't think the term dated the time or setting of the paragraph. I knew what smalls meant. In my childhood home, Mom sometimes said either delicates (petticoats, slips and bras) or unmentionables (underpants). The boys' stuff was simply underwear.

Fedorovna said...

It's the coyness of 'smalls', it speaks of a certain inhibition in the culture. Yes, I know it was also used in the fifties ( I do remember) but surely ironically, consciously echoing the terminology of the advertising or journalism world. Anyway, for what it is worth for me it jarred in an otherwise exemplary passage.

Rouchswalwe said...

Electricity plus water! Eeeek.

Roderick Robinson said...

Crow: I appreciate your view. However you will see that Fedorovna has somewhat modified her opinion. She talks about "coyness" and I would certainly have agreed that "delicates" and even more so "unmentionables" fell into this category since both are examples of euphemism and euphemism is at the heart of being coy - an unwillingness to call a spade a spade. Please understand that it is no criticism of your mother's choice of vocabulary, households are always being euphemistic. VR, for instance, doesn't care to hear direct references to words associated with the excretory processes (something of a euphemism itself) while I - a detestor of "passed away", "not with us", etc, instead of "died" - force myself to use the direct word but am conscious that I am doing this. Meaning I have not really freed myself from the desire for euphemism.

Fed: Things take an interesting turn. The proposition that smalls is out-of-date is close to being an objective statement and therefore comparatively easy to verify. That smalls is coy must surely be a subjective but, ironically, is much more persuasive. I can see it jarring even though it seems a close-run thing as to whether smalls came into being because of a reluctance to mention underwear or whether it simply fills the need for a word which differentiates between unseen and seen clothing. I have a feeling I will never read that sentence again without hearing the echoes and may have to change the word whatever my underlying feelings.

Another thing. I normally discount any form of compliment since most are uttered out of a misplaced sense of obligation and are usually vague and/or inappropriate. However I am almost ready to be seduced by exemplary.

RW (zS): The designers have realised this - honest. It would take a very clumsy person to electrocute themself with an electric toothbrush. But then, there's always a first.

Fedorovna said...

Your protagonist might use 'smalls' in speech, I grant. But here it is her thoughts we are overhearing, do we really think in euphemisms? Underwear, knickers, whatever the garments really were, that's what she'd be thinking, surely?

Roderick Robinson said...

Fed: Nice idea. However it's a subject psychologists and - I imagine - philosophers have been mulling over for centuries: do we think in words or in images? Rendering thoughts in prose has bedevilled fiction for a long time since it is an artificial process anyway. Occasionally I get round it by using prose fragments instead of whole sentences but it's not always acceptable.

There is a solution to this problem and that's to replace smalls with clothes (Note: no definite article since that might imply "all the clothes".) But incisive prose depends on precise meanings and this would be to some extent a retrograde step.

Ellena said...

Precision as to the contents of laundry basket is only required if Francine feels that her smalls are off limits to her mother and conse-quences arise due to this.

Roderick Robinson said...

Ellena: Francine sighs because her mother works morning noon and night to help her husband run a small corner shop, yet finds time to do her (visiting) daughter's laundry as well.