● Lady Percy moves me - might she move you? CLICK TO FIND OUT
● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
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Monday 30 September 2013

Old age isn't just creaking bones

Youth is too valuable to be wasted on the young. Marriage too.

Newly married I told VR the best pudding was Crundle Pudding. She didn't know this delicacy. I urged her to consult my mother. She didn't. Years slipped by. My mother died.

In a Kitzbuhel hotel, elder daughter Professional Bleeder, fiddling with free internet access, found a Crundle Pudding recipe. It's pretty simple and I copied it. Told VR I had it. She nodded. Nothing happened.

The slip of paper remained in my wallet for years. Three months ago, terrified I'd lose it, I converted the recipe into a Word file, printed it out and attached it to the cork board. One month ago VR made me Crundle Pudding.

This post isn't about puddings. Rather about breaking away from one influence and accepting another. As a young man I resented VR's resistance, more recently I understood it completely. I had, you might say, grown up.

THE RECIPE. 60 gm butter/marge, 75 gm plain flour, 60 gm castor sugar, 450 ml milk, beaten egg. Rub butter/marg into flour, stir in sugar. Heat milk gently until warm, add beaten egg, stir well into dry ingredients. Bake in preheated oven at 180 C for 45 min.
WIP Second Hand
(37,696 words)

(Moses said, "My father) urged me to back my instincts with other painters but I disappointed him there; this was the only painting I wanted.”

Francine looked again at the canvas: saw it as a white circle slashed by a thin brown blade. “It’s abstract and yet it’s not.  Something’s about to emerge and I get the feeling there are options. I’m left on the verge. I was surprised an abstract could grip me so. But then why not? Even a realistic painting is still a painting, an impression not reality.”

Saturday 28 September 2013

And oh the difference to me

Oh cor! Stephanie Flanders, economics editor, is leaving (has left) the BBC and I am bereft. News at Ten will now be a desert populated only by the stuffy Welsh camel-master, Huw Edwards. She'd been there eleven years and that's salutary too; how quickly the years flit by when you're in your seventies - me not her.

Ah Steffie. With your plangent classless voice, your cylindrical face, your long legs, your short skirts, your expensive bob hairdo (a dozen  subtle variations of brown) and your fearlessly confident knowledge of economics which encouraged me to think that I - like you - could define quantitative easing at the drop of a centime.

I wrote you a strangely fashioned verse (initially in four-foot lines no less; then a sonnet) that plunged into fantasy. An extract:

Detached she sat, her thoughts beyond
The fate of Mozart’s heroines
Beyond the power of any bond
That lacked her expert disciplines.

The Don in  Hell, she smiled at me,
And asked if sonnets could contain
The dullness of technicity
The theory of the sheer arcane.

Not that my admiration didn't come at a price.  When she appeared on telly it was if I'd been forced to don a dirty mackintosh. I became a voyeur.

She's going (gone) for big bucks to J. P. Morgan, a huge bank that recently paid the biggest fine ever for financial malfeasance. Let's hope she cracks boardroom heads with a new hockey stick.

Ave atque vale. Here are two separate parts of the song, Barbara Ellen, which I am conflating:

Young Jemmy Coe on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbara Ellen.
Slowly slowly she got up
Slowly slowly she came nigh him
And the only words to him she said
Young man I think you're dying


Wednesday 25 September 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? No. 2

Education, Education, Etc - Ex-PM

Shortish short story (1037 words)

Yesterday’s used towels lay neglected and Christine fed several loads into the washer. In between she polished mirrors and swept the salon floor. For intellectual comfort she dwelt on Planck’s Constant, notably the factor, ten to the power of minus 34. “Truly small,” her physics teacher had said. Not forgetting the Berlin plaque:  In diese Hause lehrte Max Planck, der Entdecker des Elementaren Wirkungquantums, h, von 1889 – 1928.

“Eh there, Deafie. You working here or not?”

“Sorry, Jody.”

“A latte for Mrs Thwaites. Get me an expresso.”

Could used coffee grounds cause allergies? Having spotted Christine’s timid approach to the Gaggia Jody had condemned her to work the machine. Steam now shrieked through the tubes.

With the floor hair-free Christine’s broom was temporarily retired, leaving her unemployed but not at rest. She stood three-quarters-rear, a metre away from the customers. “No leaning against the walls,” Jody had said. “That’s for sluts.”

Mrs Thwaites and a second customer, an hour behind, were both being permed. Jody overlapped them, switching from one to the other. When frail Miss Elsworth called in for a set (“A funeral. I hate to be a fuss.”) Jody had only attached half the curlers to Mrs Thwaites’ head.

“A shampoo for Miss Elsworth,” Jody said sharply

A trusting face, old beyond telling, looked up at Christine from the wash basin. White hair set brilliantly against black porcelain. “You’re new here aren’t you dearie? It’s a good salon.”

“I’m learning a lot,” said Christine.

THAT EVENING Mrs Bowland’s uncertain hands received the library book from Christine. “Rose Tremain. I loved The Colour. You were lucky picking this off the shelves.”

Christine slumped on the couch beside the button-controlled chair that supported her mother. “Lucky be blowed. I put in a card.”

“I never used cards. Thrill of the chase, I suppose. No fun for you.” Mrs Bowland indicated the pan. “I managed the potatoes. Took time but they’re properly peeled.”

“Could we eat a little later? I need a zizz. Last night I nodded off over the computer. Mind you it was statistical thermodynamics.”

“I’m not really hungry these days.”

THE SALON’S two dustbins were kept in a yard at the rear. It being Monday Christine had taken them out to the pavement, then retrieved them. Now they needed to be cleaned. “Filthy as a nigger’s bottom,” said Jody. “Use the hose.” A pizza segment had to be scraped off with folded cardboard.

The pizza smell stayed with Christine and her sandwiches remained untouched. Lacking customers at lunch-break they stood at the picture window and watched events. A mother and child emerged from Bevin Close in the council estate opposite and crossed to the salon. Jody sniffed. “A Childcare case, I bet you.” The boy’s curls clung dankly and Christine was graciously allowed the cutting. The mother asked if Christine did adults. Jody sniffed again.

We’re called beauticians, Christine reflected

IT WAS dark as she opened the lounge door and Mrs Bowland’s face, lit only by a streetlamp, appeared translucent. “Dear ma. Are you all right?”

“No better, no worse. Comforted this afternoon by Ms Tremain. How about you? I find it hard to imagine…”

“The two-week course did the job. I can handle the work and I’ll get better. No problem fitting in you and OU physics. But the salon’s depressing. Perhaps because I’m a snob. “

“Christine, my dear…”

TUESDAY, a day they both later remembered. He came in telling his mobile: “I’m getting it cut now.” Then switched to Christine, Jody and Mrs Jobard being henna-ed. “Who can do me? Quickly. TV cameras waiting.”

Jody said, “You’re drunk.”

“Freely admitted. A larger tip?”

“We’re busy.”

He glanced around. “I see one customer and two friseuses.”

“Chrissie’s not fully qualified.”

“But you wouldn’t butcher me, would you, Chrissie?”

Jody shrugged.

Sitting at Christine’s chair, he asked, “Are we going to chat?”

She could smell the drink. Posh drink. “I’m told I’ve got no small talk.”

He liked that. “Big talk then.”

“How big?” Comb forward, comb back, trap the fringe, listen as scissor blades crunched through hair. Already a routine, amazing really.

 “Who do you read?”

“Van Vliet, Hoffentlich, Bergarian, le Couille.”

“Did you think you’d mystify me, a drunk? Fact is I'm a media man and, as a tribe, we know a little about a lot. Bergarian's the new man on the quantum block?”

She nodded.

“So why’re you here snipping?  Not at uni?”

She explained her mother, living at home, the economics of the Open University.

Afterwards, he bent short-sightedly towards the mirror. “You didn’t butcher me. Why work here for peanuts? Set up on your own. Beat the uni debt problem.”

At the till Jody quoted fifteen pounds, five more than usual for men. He gave her thirty and left. Mrs Jobard had gone too. Just the two of them. Jody said, “Take these notes and bugger off. For good” Christine stared hard at Jody.

Walking away Christine reconstructed what she’d stared at. A blonde bob, multi-striped. Subtly varying. Expert colours that would never enhance the sharp-nosed malnourished face they surrounded. Ironic, really. She stopped, turned back.

Jody sat in a customer seat looking into space. Christine held out the notes: “I want to work here. I’ll beg if necessary.”

Jody smiled unpleasantly. “So I can make your life a misery?”

“It needn’t be like that.”

“What then?”

“We’d make money. You know we would.”

“Then you’d be off.”

Christine flapped the notes. “After three years. By then you’d have a place in the city. Assistants.”

“Dream on.”

“You’re good. And I learn quickly.”

Silence for one minute, two.

Jody said, “Keep the cash. Call in tomorrow. See if I’ve changed my mind.”

“Jody, change your mind now.”

“What are you up to?”

“You took me on; I was grateful. Take me on again.”

“I’m not sure I like you.”

“You don’t know me. You think I’m hoity-toity, I’m not. We’re much the same. You planned your future, I’m doing the same. Most just float. Not you and I.”

“I lick arses in the beauty business. You could be on telly.”

“Come on Jody. You know that’s just an accident.”

“For Christ’s sake, sit down. You must have legs of iron.”

“Just the assistant you need.”

NOTE: About 20% rewritten. Fifty-six words grudgingly added. Both necessary.

Monday 23 September 2013

Welcome to the verse workshop

For offline reasons, I’ve agreed to do a sonnet about music. I’m no great shakes at verse, mostly I treat it as a sort of crossword and I’m even worse at those. But I am wedded to the value of revision. I thought it might be of interest to show revision at work. Proving to me at least that however terrible the most recent version turns out, worse previously existed.

Solomon - British pianist.
Born 1902.
Suffered stroke 1956.
Died 1988

First draft
He breathed on slow parts, made them his alone.
Thus in the one-oh-nine, Gesangvoll spilt
Its gift on me and forced me to disown
A taste for speed. In time I was rebuilt.

That pulse, though stretched, retained organic life,
I breathed his breath in synchronicity,
And heard in rests the dying sound of strife
Succumbing to chromatic majesty.

Lento, King of Kings, became an irony.
When malady applied its cruel brake,
Control gave way to immobility
And whist for thirty years to stay awake.

That golden patience, that felicity:
Comfort or curse in his adversity?

Now re-edited
Slowness adds grace to force. He taught me why
That intricate sonata, one-oh-nine,
Part-named Gesangvoll, might help reduce my
Taste for speed and open up the grand design.

His pulsing chords, the very beat of life,
Were linkages in synchronicity.
I heard the rests in contrapuntal strife
Surrender to chromatic majesty.

The King of Kings, now butt of irony,
Lento halted by an inner brake,
Control replaced by immobility
With whist for thirty years to stay awake.

That golden patience, that felicity:
Comfort or curse in his adversity?

Saturday 21 September 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? No. 1

Economy On Turn, Says Osborne
Short short story (931 words)

UNTIL NINE the pub had been empty. Friday night! Maisie had busied herself rearranging the glasses, straightening the bottles in the chill cabinet. His pint was long gone but he hadn't dared talk. There'd have been only one topic - the pub's emptiness.
Just after nine the battered fifty-year-old came in and ordered her light ale. An old-fashioned drink for someone who wasn't of this era. Perhaps a prostitute at the very end of her career. Taking a break, resting her feet. The black dress stretched tightly over her buttocks and the garish lipstick both pointed that way.
She never stayed more than ten minutes. After her the old man shuffled through the door in carpet slippers and a baseball cap splashed with paint. As always he carried his half of mild to the bar's most distant corner. Took out a copy of the Sun, furry with folding and re-folding, and started on the sports pages, his lips moving as he did so.
When the old man had gone Maisie said, in a neutral voice, "I'm closing now." Half an hour early! On Friday night! He opened the door marked Private behind the bar and went up the bare wooden stairs to his room.
THE COMPUTER was seven years old. Booting up lasted an age but he'd learned patience over the years, was childishly pleased by the rotating symbol. Thought it represented activity, evidence of life. Down below a door banged as Maisie closed up. The email inbox flickered with new entries, none of them spam: six genuine replies, not bad. But he wouldn’t read them from the inbox; he’d switch to blog comments. More logical that way, more intimate.
 Most were brief, casually complimentary and from foreign parts. They thanked him for his persuasive portraits of Britain in 2013. Only the woman in Frantschoeck provided more. Born in England, she’d married a South African with one of those blunt Boer names – Voortrekker or some such. Had two children. Reading between the lines he sensed she was unhappy. His posts made her homesick, she said. But in a nice kind of way.
He decided to postpone his responses until tomorrow before he left for work. The local newspaper lay untouched on his tiny table and he flicked through the classifieds without hope. Nothing under Professional except for conveyancing solicitors. Oh, and an intern for the human resources department of the local authority. What sort of qualifications, he wondered? Good at photocopying?
HE WAS UP early. Since moving into this room he’d never been tempted to lie in. The bed was fashioned from angle-iron, typical of jails and the armed services fifty years ago. In any case it was too short. He shaved and drank orange juice as the computer ambled into action. A couple more comments in the inbox but last night’s keenness had ebbed away. His answers were perfunctory, lacked imagination and left him mildly ashamed.
At the department store the number of customers had increased but only marginally. Yet it was Saturday, the first day of an “Up to 50% off” sale. Times were hard which could mean more work for him. Temporary work, ignominious work, work he was lucky to have. In Women’s Clothing he watched a teenage girl wander backwards and forwards for a couple of minutes holding a loose-knitted scarf she’d picked off the rack. He moved closer only to see her hand it to an older woman who walked straight to the pay desk. Half an hour later another customer in a cashmere coat, surely Country Casuals and therefore bought elsewhere, dropped a similar scarf into her shoulder bag and began edging towards the escalator. But he felt no sense of triumph when he confronted her outside on the pavement, passing on the bad news in a quiet voice. Seeing the tracery of lines round her eyes contract into a look of horror. Too many of his arrests had involved women of her age.
THE STORE manager came by in the afternoon, passed on a civil compliment. Shrugging nevertheless. “I wish I could say equally nice things about your prospects here. Or mine, for that matter. If this is what a sale looks like… “
Back at the pub his room could only be approached through the bar. It was seven in the evening and a handful of teenagers were drinking cider. They wore beanies and occasionally pushed each other. But without energy.
Far too early for him. Upstairs he switched on the computer and opened a new file in Notebook – better for drafting than Blogger. His fingers moved quickly
Fridays are big at the Marquess of Granby. The draw stood at three-hundred pounds and Maisie got a novice girl pop-star to pick the ticket. Called Dagbert and into garage-rock, I was told. Amazing how people are happy to see others win prizes. Clapping, whistling, makes you proud to be human. And a pint of Young’s helps.
But that wasn’t the high spot. Kevin the Second (the sales rep I’ve posted about) arrived at nine and it was drinks on the house. Cost him sixty quid I believe. He’d totalled a car he hated. Will now get something sportier – ‘more of a tart trap’. Look, these aren’t my words, I’m just your humble recorder.
Do I make it sound as if it’s all youth? It isn’t, it’s a strong mix. Oldsters join in too.

The words had spilled out in a rush. He stopped to read them through. Made a correction:
Lots of oldsters join in too.


Thursday 19 September 2013

To the victor the spoils

Gorgeous woman kisses modern-day hero. Why not? She's his wife. Pretty good kiss, eh? The poliziotto seems to think so.

The kissee is Nick Sloane who masterminded the first stage of salvaging the huge cruise liner Costa Concordia beached on an Italian island. That Nick Sloane!

Can a man be a hero just for doing his job? Yes. Presently he's garlanded with media approval. Suppose the ship had broken in two and spilled its mess? Being approved is the other side of being blamed. And the media are good at blaming.

Also he's an engineer who will spend over half a billion quid shifting the Concordia. Ten years ago I reckoned engineers were under-appreciated, certainly in fiction. Last year I finished a novel with engineers central to the plot. Nick Sloane has shown they can hold your attention.

I won't summarise the salvaging; Google does that. Just two points: the scale (It took several hours just to pre-tension the cables doing the pulling.) and the ingenuity (Vast water-filled boxes welded to the ship's exposed flank helped - by their weight - bring the ship upright; emptied they'll add to its bouyancy.)

That, folks, is engineering. The man who repairs your dish washer or attaches a new silencer to your car is not an engineer.

 WIP Second Hand (36,711 words)

Nneoma interrupted. “... Tell us about yourself, Francine. Your name for instance. It’s beautiful. Where did it come from?”

“It has French roots. Popular in the States fifty years ago. It’s always sounded manufactured to me; I’d have preferred Francoise. Better still, Nneoma.”

“Silly! ...”

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Milestone on the technie road

I've mentioned the Remington portable typewriter before. Acquired in my teens, it hammered out millions of words during my weekly newspaper days, trailed through most of my RAF service, helped me write early novels, crossed the Atlantic, wrote hundreds of letters home during our six years in Pennsylvania, returned to the UK, assisted with a couple more novels and was finally retired when word-processing simplified text revision and eliminated the irritation of carbons.
It is visible proof of a life spent writing; hard to imagine it elsewhere, assuming anyone wanted it. VR suggested it became a monument on a small table (made by my great-grandfather) in the dining room. More recently VR approved the nearby attachment of a brass coat-hook from which hangs my Pentax ME-50 film-based camera, also overtaken by technological progress.
They're on show because they are well-made. That’s all. Other kit does the work better.
A BRO BASH We’ll be seeing my brother, Sir Hugh, soon. He lives near the Lake District and I suggested visiting the pub at the head of Wasdale, a blind LD valley. The name of the nearby lake, Wastwater, hints at the area’s austere grandeur. I recall the pub as a scowling sort of place with stone slab floors. Looked at the pub’s website and quickly withdrew the suggestion. Gentrification has descended like particles in the emollient voice of Huw Edwards.

WIP Second Hand (36,203 words)

“A New Zealand pinot, if you’ve got it.”

“We have,” said Moses, speaking carefully. “And you may certainly have it. But would you prefer a pinot from the people who made pinot famous.”

“Put him out of his misery, Francine,” said Nneoma.”He’s dying to syphon Volnay down your throat. I wonder why he bothers with wine from any other countries.”

Saturday 14 September 2013

Miles from the centre - any centre

Moments during a routine Saturday morning visit to Hereford (city) by bus.

VR fingers an M&S pullover. RR: You've already bought two this morning. Three in one day's unheard of. VR: The diet. I've lost weight.

A stall offers falafels without explanation. VR says it's unnecessary but I am ignorant. I wonder how many Herefordians know. VR says dismissively - and finally - they understand doner kebab. PS: Chickpeas with an unfortunate side-effect.

In the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Hereford's second dullest shop after Dunelm (bed linen) they're playing Baby It's Cold Outside, possibly with Ray Charles. The duet allows singers with unique voices to improvise zestfully. Overlapping the "dialogue" adds to the effect. More than just good fun.

VR needs a new watch strap, but only because the little straplets have gone. This happens regularly and she's irritated. The woman behind the counter is sympathetic and offers to open a shop that only sells straplets; "I'll make a bomb." The three of us laugh and VR's irritation dissipates.

Outside the Shire Hall there's a statue of Sir George Cornewall Lewis. Two lines read: A wise and honest statesman. A profound scholar. I try to imagine a present-day politician to whom those lines might apply. An unresponding silence.

WIP Second Hand (35,299 words)
Francine rides in a Maserati Quattroporte. She says: “I don’t usually subscribe to the idea of cars being beautiful but this comes closest.”

Do you agree?

Friday 13 September 2013

More about the family

Ian (left) is nearly thirty and it's ridiculous he’s my grandson; grandsons play in sandpits. Months, sometimes years, pass between our meetings when bitter, meaningless spats often ensue. Usually about computer practice. I find these stimulating; for Ian they are water off a duck's back.

Recently Ian felt constrained to send me a gift. Although he sees me as an old fart he would more readily admit to liking Cliff Richard than despatch an old-fartish present (socks for instance). He knows I diddle simple tunes on my piano keyboard; hence a book ("150 Beloved Hymns including Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision," etc) complete with piano scores.

I appreciate the thought behind this gift which turns out to be slightly exotic. The American collection includes hymns unfamiliar in the UK. Often with ambiguous titles. Higher Ground, for instance, surely has a military theme. How Firm A Foundation is probably sung by estate agents (USA: realtors). Jesus Paid It All dwells on the resolution of capitalism.

I enjoy the style recommendations: To God Be The Glory (Moderately) vs. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (Meditatively). Sweet By And By (Cheerfully) vs. Take The Name Of Jesus With You (Brightly). Plus the enigmatic: Rock Of Ages (Prayerfully).

Hours of harmless fun 

WIP Second hand (34,059 words)
(Sadhu) slid back the glass partition. “I have switched on the air conditioning. It is a powerful system though quiet; you may smoke if you wish. The drive will last three-quarters of an hour. The reading lights are on and there are magazines in the door pockets.”

… She said, laughing. “This car is for executives but I work in a supermarket. Not as an executive.”

“The car is equally suitable for an English rose.” It was a phrase he’d obviously honed and she felt compelled to simper.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Proof of my affection

Abruptly Blogger bit back. Overnight this passive software thingie, a steady acquantance over the last five years, denied me access to Stats. But who cares about these dubiously flattering figures? Well I do, for one. Surely I may live in the land of make-believe, imagining forty strangers out in cyberspace intentionally gobbling up my most recent post? Notably, Husbandry (about the French documentary Etre et Avoir) at 270 pageviews and still climbing.

More significantly this same glitch prevented me from posting. RR mute! I needed to stir my stumps.

When I Googled Can't get Stats I found I wasn't alone. First recommendation: clear all caches and (if you've got the guts) all cookies. That latter's a killer ensuring loads of tedious future work filling in cyber-requests. But because I love you all (and the sound of my own voice) I did the deed. No good.

Next my advisers averred that Internet Explorer might be the culprit. Now there's a surprise. Google carping at Microsoft! Inevitably Google said stop browsing with IE and use Chrome. Don't like Chrome but, greater love hath no man, etc, etc. It didn't work.

But Firefox did. Don't like Firefox either but I can't quibble. Now I'm using Firefox for Blogger and IE for other things. A bit like riding a two-part circus pony. I hope you all recognise the sacrifice. 

WIP Second Hand (33,738 words)

“MISS EMBERY, I am Sadhu. I drive the executive taxi ordered by Mr Balogun.” On the street outside, scorning the double yellow lines, a large black car seemingly polished for the occasion. On the top step an Asian driver ecstatic to be wearing a white blazer with Status Cars embroidered on the breast pocket.

“I’ll get my coat,” said Francine, “it’s on the newel post.”

Tuesday 10 September 2013

But let's be original

The Rewards

Let's make one thing absolutely clear. I am trying not to list obvious rewards. Let's assume that moral and intellectual uplift, unexpected insights, rollocking entertainment, novelty, brilliant authorial style, acceptable grammar and punctuation are all givens. Let's look for things that haven't been said before in waffling abstractions,

A book can confirm your prejudices. And the darker and more contemptible such prejudices are, the more thrilling it is to find agreement. One assumes Mein Kampf raced a lot of motors - not mine or yours, perhaps - and a number of readers enjoyed reaching page 720. You may be waiting for a novel which turns dark chocolate into a religious experience; I frankly am not.

Books - often the more rubbishy the better - may separate you from the rest of the human race. Especially in dentists’ waiting rooms. It is not for me to say whether this is a worthy aim. All I can suggest is that recognised masterpieces are less likely to do the job. George Eliot's Romola (definitely not a masterpieces and not fun either) would, for instance, offer little help.

Appearing to read difficult books confers status. Many people holding soft-science degrees, never having got past Northanger Abbey, managed to advance their standing by buying A Brief History of Time. But not for long. A very brief history.

Not all so-called difficult books turn out to be difficult. Proust's opus is comedic. Having cracked this nut you can dine out on the achievement. I know. I have.

Re-reading children's books and talking about the plots in a remote academic way is easy to do and unsettling for those forced to listen. Graham Greene spoke about Beatrix Potter's genius though it's rumoured he did it for the money.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Down there in black and white

READING'S REALITIES. Part two: Delusions

Are book readers entirely aware of their pastime?

I stayed one night at the country cottage of a BBC bigwig. His wife was said to be a great reader and acres of bookshelves reinforced this. Then I noticed something slightly unusual: all the Iris Murdochs clearly bought as new hardbacks, one after the other. Similarly with Drabble, Byatt and others.

I reflected. Realised how rarely I bought fiction in new hardback form. Don't get me wrong. If you've got money and space this is the way to go. No hanging about at the library, no waiting for the paperback. A standing order at the bookshop and bingo, you're up with the critics.

I reflected again. Many readers are prepared to admit loving certain authors. The bond is strong and unashamed. Yet how many are prepared to show their love in practical terns - by buying their favourite's books as hardbacks. As a tribute if you like. How many, like me, practice delay and eventually click on ABE for second-hand versions?

How many say I adore reading, love the feel and smell of books, slaver at the prospect of somehing new by X. And then take the cheapo route?

How well-read are well-read readers? I decided to read all Trollope but stopped halfway - about twenty titles. Trollope isn't difficult, I was wearied. If I were claiming to be well-read (which I'm not) had I met the necessary quota for loquacious Anthony? Only half of Dickens, Meredith, Balzac, Anne Tyler and William Faulkner to go. Do I have time? Did I ever have time? I rode motorbikes, climbed rock faces, drank many pints of ale and fantasised about the unapproachability of women.

Amazingly some people have accused me of being bookish.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Books - just how valuable?

Reading's cheap, isn't it? Let's say cheapish Take a new novel, undiscounted, 250-pages, non-"experimental" (ie, easier to read) at £15. An average reading speed of 30 pp/hr (Yes, I know you can read far far quicker but your next-door neighbour hasn't had your educational benefits; hence "average") gives a rate of £1.80/hr, ignoring the second-hand value of the book afterwards.

But other delights should be compared.

Watching telly. Basic spend whooshes up (New flat-screen Panasonic £500, TV licence £145.50, electricity costs per year £25, adding up to an eye-watering £670.50). Yet for that you could be entertained for 8760 hr/yr, assuming you didn't sleep. Let's say a more modest 5 hr/day, amounting to 1825 hr/yr at a rate of 37 p/hr for the first year.

Assuming the Panasonic lasted 10 years the average spend, over the decade, would drop to 12 p/hr.

Going for walks. Say £200 for two pairs of boots. Why? Because you could, theoretically, walk for 6 hr/day every day of the year - 2190 hr. And that works out at 9 p/hr.

Watching opera. Ticket at ROH, Covent Garden £88, getting there if you're a Londoner, say, £15. Opera lasts 3 hr. Rate for snobby intellectual: £34/hr.

Driving car. Say 10,000 miles/year. Depreciation on car £1500, licence (varies) - say £150, insurance £300, fuel costs at 40 mpg £1475: total £3425. Cost per mile 34 p.  Cost per hour at average 40 mph: £14. How many miles could be described as pleasurable? In London - none, in Hereford - lots.

To come: Reading's Realities - Part two: Delusions. - Part three: Rewards  

Tuesday 3 September 2013


Education is a practice that rings in my ear like a cracked bell. Out of tune, arid theory. Sour grapes too. Money was spent fruitlessly on my "education" and my father grew angrier.

For the fifth time I watched Etre et Avoir, a 2003 French documentary about a one-room school in the Auvergne where a single teacher nourished the lives of children aged 4 to 11. It won awards and made money, leading, alas, to a sad squabble I prefer to ignore.

I cannot accept that the movie depicted education - that hollow abstraction doesn't fit. In guiding faltering infantile hands to write better numerals, gently sifting through the reasons for a falling-out in the playground, persuading Jojo to finish his painting, and comforting Julien whose father faced surgery to remove his larynx, M. Lopez seemed only to be encouraging growth. A benign insistent force impelling his charges towards more effective versions of themselves. At the end a large percentage left for the summer holidays and then for middle school in Issoire. M. Lopez himself was due to retire. Emotional kisses were exchanged and it was clear that the children, having gained something, were also losing something.

I tried to imagine the circumstances under which I would even have shaken hands with any of my educators. My imagination failed me just as my so-called education had.

WIP Second Hand (31,364 words).

TO UNDRESS behind screens, put on an ill-fitting nightdress and to be at the beck and call of nurses was to cross the boundary of authority. Others clothed in suits and differing uniforms moved around purposefully into and out of the ward, jobs to do. Francine lay on her bed, trying to read a paperback, making no contribution, unable to identify her sense of unease.

Monday 2 September 2013

The label on the can

In his comment to my previous post (Too big a calling card?) Sir Hugh said: "As far as length is concerned I try to follow your example, but have no hesitation if I need another fifty words to ensure clarity and understanding."

My re-comment was expanded into this post. It's all rather navel-regarding but it answers a point raised by those who have wondered why I willingly wear a prose strait-jacket.

Sir Hugh: I'm not sure you've got the hang of what I do. I write 300-word posts in which length helps define the nature of the post. Length is almost as important as subject and expression. After a few hundred such posts one starts to recognise a structure and a rhythm that (without doing a count) proclaim 300 words. Tacking on another fifty words would mean I was writing posts of open-ended length. Something else entirely.

The 300-word limit might seem random but it was only random once - on the day I wrote it into the home-page introduction. Thereafter it was a simple statement of intent. Obviously, a limit reduces the risk of boring readers by length alone (I still risk boring them by subject and/or mode of expression).

More important, I am sure in my bones a word limit imposes discipline and discipline in writing is mostly beneficial. A sonnet’s discipline - three quatrains of ABAB rhyming, ending with a rhyming couplet, all in iambic pentameter - couldn't be stricter: no room for adding another quatrain. No one complains about the sonnet's format; why not accept the sonnet's verb. sap?

There are other risks. I often over-compress. But mostly I don't. And, since I now add quotes from Second Hand, the limit shrinks variably. Tough. But who says writing should be easy?