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Monday 30 December 2013

WALK 6. Paris

Journalism's messy: a job for those incapable of anything else, for show-offs, the prurient, the seedy. I admit to those defects; part-explanation for my limited social circle and my tenuous hold on blogosphere acquaintances. But it can be fun.

I emerged from dinner in the Marais - the "village" of central Paris. My host was a genial Swiss guy who owned a Ferrari and a vintage violin on which he played unaccompanied  Bach. My bed was in a hugely expensive hotel with a bathroom done out in green veined marble. I decided to walk.

The distance was 6.1 km (3 miles, 1391 yards) but the route was obvious, the hotel was close to the Eiffel Tower. I crossed the Seine via its famous island, Ile de la Cité, home to Notre Dame. Also the Quai des Orfèvres, Ministry of Justice (above), where Simenon's Insp. Maigret worked.

Westish, along the Quai Anatole France, maybe I saw the Louvre; certainly the Tuileries garden. Invisible but in parallel, the Champs Elysées. Tourist trappery; what mattered were the street lamps: tall bright lights and lower yellowy-orangey blurs saying: Hey, this is Paris.

On my side (the left bank - aha!) the Quai d'Orsay, named after a count, amateur artist, dandy, on the other the Voie Georges Pompidou, say no more. The Seine takes a left turn here and I'm home - for once a journalist lightly touched with virtue.

WIP Second Hand (52,980 words)
… he seemed smaller but more clearly defined. Dwarfish, his qualities were intensifying. Not just what was visible - his dark, flaw-free Iberian skin and deeply waved blue-black hair – but the invisible features too: his skills as a painter, his maleness, his powers of suggestion, his articulacy and – it had just occurred to her - his prowess as a lover.

Friday 27 December 2013

Walking. An alternative?

 Swimming for me is not head-up breast-stroke but head-submerged crawl. Air snatched in during a brief twist of the head; used air bubbled out into the water. Power generated by windmilling arms and flicking legs. Initially crawl is difficult to co-ordinate (especially the breathing) and exhausting to maintain. Once learned it is graceful, powerful and efficient. One is never tempted to resume breast-stroke.

To enjoy crawl’s benefits it makes sense to create targets. Before I had to give up pool swimming I did a mile twice a week. During holidays on Karpathos I swam a mile from Diafani to the beach at Vananda. I’d sit for fifteen minutes then swim back. The best exercise for an ageing body like mine.

I cheated a bit. There was more to see in the water and I used a snorkel, mask and flippers. But this was more than just snorkelling. Walking the (admittedly twisty) coast road to Vananda took about half an hour. I could swim it in forty-five minutes.

Sea swimming, as I say, has its own entertainments. Long distance pool swimming can be mindless but there are diversions. Mental arithmetic calculations about what’s done and what remains often emerge automatically.

I’m rotten at sun-bathing.  

WIP Second Hand (52,851 words)
They’d just emerged from The Vanishing… (which) had disturbed them both. Just look at me, Francine begged silently, let me catch your eye, let me throw out a signal, a gesture. Let us decide – sideways if you like -  what needs to be said, pick words we’ll agree on and that will comfort us.

But in the end he did better… slipping his arm round her waist and drawing her to him. “It’s not the movie, it’s the idea we can’t get on with.”

Thursday 26 December 2013

Austen with knuckledusters

Jane Austen’s Emma is a manipulative prig and movie adaptations must work hard to rehabilitate her later in the story. VR believes no movie has done this.

However when Emma insults  poor Miss Bates at the picnic Mr Knightley’s reprimand is Dear Jane at her finest. Austen dialogue is mostly civilised and a bit over-formal. Not here:

"How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?
"Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honor - to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her - and before her niece, too - and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. This is not pleasant for you, Emma - and it is far from pleasant to me.”

And there’s more.

Resuming my 2/5 diet I conserved Boxing Day energy by watching the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In the novel Emma is 22 and Knightley 39. Paltrow was 24 and Jeremy Northam, first-rate tearing her off a strip, 35. Close enough yet in visual terms they’re more like twins. Virtually the same height too. Spoilt the story a bit.

WIP Second Hand (52,469 words)
“Charles McGraw,” he said. “A professional lifetime spent mainly as a cop in B-features like the film we’ve just seen, Narrow Margin. He died quite young. Do you think he was aware? That all this tough dialogue and cutting – especially cutting – would end up in a string of noir classics.”

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Cleverness takes a rest

Not a good year but it's what's happened to others that makes it so. Champagne and burgundy tonight together with "bitings on", since there'll be just the two of us and time spent in the kitchen is time apart. The Neff can take the day off.

The circle of Tone Deaf's other voices has ebbed and flowed. Not everyone shares my obsession to be clicking away, practising, showing off, playing with words. I understand that. New voices have joined in. All distinctive since TD's "choir" I suddenly see is a self-created meritocracy. A line in the Inbox and I can already hear the tone of what I will shortly read. Those other voices are not in any sense tone deaf.

I wish everyone well. Thank you all for riding out my inconsistencies, lack of judgment and a fatal need to be clever. I'd apologise but it would be like regretting my grey hair, my accusatory paunch, my turkey wattle. Cheers is how I usually end letters  so cheers it is.

Monday 23 December 2013

Waiting in Waitrose

At 9.30 am today the check-out queues at Waitrose, Abergavenny, were twenty trolleys long but staff were offering free choice from boxes of Quality Street. Tried, but failed, to imagine this happening at Tesco.

Our queue extended down the detergent aisle so impulse buys seemed unlikely. But no, the woman ahead suddenly picked two fluffy duster refills. Encouraged, VR had time for a little mental arithmetic; taken to the third decimal place Essential Waitrose Laundry Liquid Sachets were a good buy.

Me? I was enjoying an impromptu Welsh lesson from the bilingual aisle posters: Toilet tissues (Papur toiled), Magazines (Cylch gronau), Home storage (Storio yn y cartref).

Ahead a smartly dressed woman gutted her copy of The Daily Mail, absorbed the quick crossword, did the Sudoku at similar speed, and was now tackling another teaser. She showed me: Pitcherwits - images converted into words. Since I intended to mention her here I asked if she was an Abergavenny resident. “Born in the Cotswolds, brought up in Hereford, living out in rural Wales. Put me down as a local.” Our queue fed two check-outs and I pointed out she would be taking the one on the left. “Which will be against your political inclinations,” I teased. “Indeed,” she replied. VR nudged me; in supermarket queues politics is off the menu.

Our queueing lasted an hour. I’m sure it would have seemed longer in Tesco.

WIP Second Hand (52,006 words)
As she stood up Florence reached towards the hi-fi. Francine started to protest but Florence waved a finger. “Poulenc’s Concert Champetre – an acquired taste. We don’t want to be feeding the baby with gin.”

“But let’s have something else. Something vague, indistinct, uncertain.”

Florence opened the cupboard which held her CDs. “I don’t go in for music that’s uncertain…”

Sunday 22 December 2013

WALK 5. Pennsylvania

 I have disturbed you all too much. Here's a good walk. It revealed things, charmed me and suggested that a (then) recent act of madness was going to turn out well.

I was appropriately clad in a three-piece black/white speckle bought in Savile Row; elastic-sided ankle boots that caused a soignée woman at the Carnegie-Mellon Bank to laugh: "I've got slippers like those." I was leaving Northside YMCA to explore my new home town, Pittsburgh - in effect to explore the USA. I looked exotic and confirmed it every time I opened my mouth.

Northside was exotic itself. Huge wedding-cake houses, once the home of steel industry magnates, now in decay. My new employer occupied one of these mansions.

However it was the detail that said "foreign". Stumpy upright tubes along what I would have called pavements but which I would have to re-identify as sidewalks; I knew them to be fire-plugs, familiar from movies but quite, quite odd in reality. Untidy power lines, casually strung from posts. Road surfaces so pock-marked they appeared Third World.

I walked by a park of sorts, then took Seventh Street. So utilitarian, as if this huge country had lacked the energy to dream up proper names, Crossed the Allegheny river which proved the reverse. Looked right to the point where the Allegheny met the Monongahela (These names, these names - one reason for coming) and saw what I later learned was The Bridge to Nowhere – incomplete, brought to a temporary halt years ago, now a municipal joke.

Spent the rest of the morning among the books in Kaufmann's department store. Hundreds of titles I'd never heard of; sustenance for years.

An unadventurous morning but the adventure had been to take the Icelandic Airlines prop plane from Prestwick in the first place.

Friday 20 December 2013

WALK 4. Greek island

Laying aside exercise, the calming of an over-fevered brain and an unlimited supply of fresh air should “walks” (the plural noun) be essentially pointless? Where there’s a goal is it still a walk or simply a means of getting there?

I’m not expecting coherent answers. On the Greek island of Karpathos, in the Dodecanese, my walk from Diafani to Olympos and back (about 12 miles) was not only pointless but also punitive. Why? I ask myself. Why?

There were options but I stuck to the tarmac road. The route rises to a low col then descends, the weather was culinary, the surroundings were unexceptional (scrub and hills of the humpy sort). I walked quickly, as if to be shut of the work. Nearing Olympos I was faced with a depression devoted, it seemed, to allotments. Unable to see a non-trespassing way through I followed the road loop which added 1½ miles before I entered the village. As I walked the streets, my no-doubt purple, certainly sweat-glittering, face encouraged shopkeepers to suggest I slowed down, even stop. I ignored them.

Olympos occupies the steep backside of a cliff and housing is terraced. From the heights I saw a route through the depression. My descent, via tiny promenades and short staircases, was diverting but took less than 15 minutes. To tempt excitement I ran all the way. Soon I was back on the road, head down. Then beer at Gabriella’s in Diafani.

Why? I was glad it was over but I wasn’t exhausted. I’d previously travelled the route by car so there were no discoveries. The exercise was as nothing compared with my daily two-mile swims off the coast. The only non-pointless aspect is that it provided material for this grudging post. A walk, then.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Here's to a merry (?) Christmas

When telly was black and white my mother and I first tasted Ibsen with The Master Builder. The play wasn’t well served by a rolling eyes/vowels actor from the Wolfit school, possibly Sir Donald himself. After half an hour we learned that to celebrate house completions the master builder traditionally climbs on to the roof and does something symbolic.

My mother said gloomily, “He’s going to fall off, isn’t he? It’s that kind of play.” A nod being as good as a wink I turned off the telly. BTW, he does. 

For years I didn’t try to stop this gap. When, reluctantly, I decided I was now grown-up and all grown-ups had at least seen Hedda Gabler, Ibsen seemed to disappear from our domestic screens, possibly when colour was introduced. Norwegian drama doesn’t profit from reds and yellows.

This Christmas VR and I are doing the decent thing. At considerable expense I’ve acquired DVDs of Hedda, The Doll’s House and – erm - Uncle Vanya. Yes I now know Uncle is not Ibsen. Make do and mend, I say.

To compensate we will also re-watch Bunuel’s surreal The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I first saw it with Joe but under strained circumstances. We’d sunk three pints each beforehand and missed some significant passages. I remember laughing a lot, as did Joe. I’m less confident about Hedda.

WIP Second Hand (51,738 words)
Florence said, “Perhaps I’d passed my sell-by date as a spouse. Just two years of marriage. I did have this secret belief that I didn’t deserve it, that I might have used up my wifeliness in a succession of beds west of London. That was all nearly ten years ago and I’m probably cured by now. But you must promise if I start prying; living your life vicariously.”

Wednesday 18 December 2013

WALK 3. Night walk

I yearned profoundly, yet my wish was rarely granted. "Can we go for a night walk, Mum?"

Perhaps it was my birthday, my tenth or eleventh - the war just over. The very limits of memory. We'd just finished the night walk. My mother and I sat on a roadside bench, she wearing a shapeless tweed skirt, opening a Thermos flask. Me? Was I temporarily satisfied?

The night walk varied perfectly. Starting on an unmade road between the Haunted House and the parish church where I was a choir member. Passing under a brick-built railway bridge near which, later in life, I killed a frog for which I still feel unbearably ashamed. After sixty-plus years! Past Grannie R's front gate and Thorpe's, the ice-cream shop which grew and grew.

A farm, bypassed through gates with catches that worked smoothly. On to a gorse-covered slope from which I could see trains from Bradford Forster Square crossing the Leeds-to-Liverpool canal and entering a tunnel in a flurry of white steam. Then the spinney. Later again my devil-may-care pal, Chub, was to chop down a silver birch in that spinney for burning on Guy Fawkes night.

Beyond the spinney an elegant avenue leading to the sewage works at the village with the foreign name, Esholt. But we turned the other way, to the bench and the Thermos flask. What did I talk about? Perhaps nothing, my imagination in those days was feverish enough to be self-sustaining.

My mother? Slightly distant. Perhaps mulling over my father's infidelities which would soon force her to leave me and my two brothers. An end to night walks.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

WALK 2. Genoa

 Genoa is a port on the north Mediterranean coast of Italy; drive 150 km west and you're in France. I used the hair-raising aerial approach to Genoa airport in my novel Out Of Arizona. But this post is another matter.

I walked round Genoa in 1981 for an hour and a half and I've forgotten virtually every last detail. Well, almost...

On foreign trips as a journalist I always bought an evocative prezzie for VR. From Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, the mounted head of a piranha; from Tokyo a calligrapher's ink pad. These forays were harassing, often squeezed into twenty minutes before dinner. In Genoa I had time, perhaps too much. I walked quickly and covered a lot of ground, ending up footsore  But never discouraged. My abiding memory is I knew I would find a worthwhile gift. And I did.

A silver lizard, shaped into an S, its back adorned with enamel lozenges. Ten centimetres long, claws delicately detailed, intended as a pendant. Cheaper versions in street markets don’t come close

I loved it and I knew VR would. She wore it a lot, even informally.

Burglars stole the lizard and VR's engagement ring.

But the lizard still glows silvery matte as it did in 1981. And in moments of wellbeing I still sense the confidence I felt hurrying along Genoa's boulevards and back streets, knowing I would be successful.

WIP Second Hand (51,030 words)
“That’s not quite right. The addict is weakened, not all there. Me? I’m a bagload of endorphins, making use of what I’ve learnt. Trying out things for the first time. OK, I’m not hacking up someone’s windpipe so they’ll breathe again; it’s not life or death; it’s a private, contained, sometimes sordid world. But it’s fun and… it’s also serious.”

WALK 1. Scafell Pike

I comment on walkers, possibly irritate them. This post, and ten others, will let them get their own back.

Scroll back decades. VR and I were fitter, even so we failed. How can one fail at walking? It's slow. Only writhing on one's belly is slower. But then both of us are good at excuses.

I suggested Scafell Pike. Once, with experts, I trudged up this eminence, hindered by snow underfoot and mist everywhere else - as impenetrable as chapter one of The Ambassadors. When the mist briefly parted I was startled, as if I’d gone for a step that wasn't there. I wanted to review that view.

VR and I set out from Langdale*. Quick pause for a jargon check, but all's OK; modern walkers do "set out". "Strike out" is now obs. in the dictionary. We had an OS map but never said OS in full; only pedants do that. Fact is the feet of millions have left a discoloured trail 4 m wide, going upwards, always upwards. You'd have to be an idiot to...

What kind of idiot? With that last step my sight blurred, another and the blurring got worse. The path got narrower. No it's not blepharitis, I'm due that in about 2012. My head and shoulders have entered a mist ceiling. One more step and the path’s like Blondin's tightrope. I can just see a knee-high rock: a sitting-down omen.

Granite (I'm assuming that's what it is) polished by a century's footwear is transformed, looks expensive. Of course, it's used for kitchen work surfaces. Boots bump lightly to my left and someone strides down, passing facelessly. No one's going up. I look at VR and she looks back. I reflect on my aversion to gravity. In a horse race we'd be DNF. 

* Pehaps we didn't. See Sir Hugh's comment.

Monday 16 December 2013

Shackled no more

Epiphanies are moments of revelation. Fifty-four years ago, almost to the day, one happened.

That year, 1959, I was liberated. I finally left the northern city of Bradford where my adolescence had dried like a peascod. London was my playground. My job consisted of filling two magazine pages a week, more or less any way I wanted. I had met the woman I would eventually marry. The weather was unseasonally warm.

The Christmas break beckoned. I walked along Tudor Street, close to Fleet Street, then the actual and symbolic heart of Britain's newspaper industry. My companion was JM, the handsome, confident, competent deputy-editor of the magazine I worked for. We had both had a couple of sherbets.

Walking towards us on the other side of the street were two attractive women, about our age, who had also been at the sherbet. Not helplessly so: just happy, chatting. A pleasing sight. I pointed them out to JM.

He nodded. Whereupon (this is an anecdote, so whereupon is permitted) he sauntered over and presented himself. I could hear what he said: he complimented them on their looks and admitted he was consumed with a desire to kiss both of them. This, like whereupon, was permitted. He sauntered back.

I was a mere observer yet my heart overflowed with joy. Welcome proof I was no longer resident in the blackened, mean-spirited, navel-contemplating, misogynistic city of my birth. An epiphany.

WIP Second Hand (50,650 words)
During her first month Francine had worn business suits which she hoped would imply she was serious. A contributing editor, specialising in biology, and who attended staff meetings in shorts and flip-flops was the first to break ranks when he asked her, mock-seriously, whether she was looking for promotion to a higher tier of management.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Ready, steady, draw!

 Life classes are comparatively rare, at least in Hereford. So when VR's art group heard of a course being set up in Hereford city, several members signed up. Quickly the life class was sold out.

The rules are not everyone's cup of tea and have something in common with blitz chess. The two-hour class is broken down into individual sessions a mere 2 - 5 minutes long which means you hardly have time to flex your finger joints. The emphasis is on instinct, leisured contemplation is out.

VR wasn't sure she would survive such a whirligig but I was pleased she took it up. Speaking as a non-artist (ie, close your ears now) I have always felt that human bodies represent the ultimate challenge in representational art; I mean it applies in writing so why not in pictures?

Inevitably some of VR's early stuff reflected the breathless nature of her task. But I seized on the one I've reproduced here, convinced she'd got it right. Those external lines seem to follow the routes they should. Work in progress, you could say. Down below is some of mine.

WIP Second Hand (50,220 words)
When Francine took her reserved train seat opposite Alan Pratt it was obvious he’d done more than merely exercise his fungiform papillae. On the table dividing them were three cans of lager already acquired from the train’s bar. Pratt said, “Miss Embery, our resident Stakhanovite. I thought you might like to wet your whistle after your working lunch. We’ve been joined by Parky from the big catering magazine, he’s in the bog, shifting his cargo.”

Thursday 12 December 2013

The verdict: Could do better

The Suit re-examined 
The unread story does not exist. Combine The Suit with your reaction and the result is yours. Others (including me) may react differently and that combination will be theirs (mine). There are no experts, no exact conclusions.

Writing for me is fun. Nothing more. I aim to entertain myself, anyone else is a bonus. Also a delight.

A man, sleeping rough in London, requires more body insulation to keep heat loss at bay. He discovers insulation which makes him more socially acceptable, thus able to share the interior warmth of buildings. Even a bank, albeit briefly. Along the way he must tell lies. When eventually challenged he admits his appearance is mildly fraudulent. But his challenger may or may not be all she seems.

Some readers ask for more. This is gratifying but more is not my job; it's the reader's. My job, as I see it, is to arrive at a point where I'd like to read more but, since I shan’t write more, I'll have to use my imagination. As must all readers.

Arriving at that point is tricky. Conciseness is vital (it’s a “short” story) but the journey should be interesting. Should you take advantage of someone who is grief-stricken? How do you trim your own hair? How do you legitimise your seat in a bar without spending money?

On the other hand do we need to know why this person is on the streets? The choice lies between detail that propels the story and that which decorates it. Far harder than it sounds.

Yes, the end is c--p. I'll alter it (keeping to the sub-1000-word limit) and let you know. You don’t have to read it again. Like Shostakovich I’ll simply be responding to just criticism.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? No. 7

NOTE: End now rewritten

The Suit (Short story, 985 words)

Once this street had accommodated urban peasants. Now the house doors had been painted in gloss colours, painted and re-painted. Gentrified.

A woman answered Farquhar’s knock, her face blotched with crying. Farquhar said, “You’re troubled. I’ll leave.”

The woman’s puffy eyes focused on his shabbiness. “You’re troubled too. Is it money?”

Farquhar smiled. “I was looking for clothing. The nights are parky. Old clothes, anything.”

The woman paused. “You need an anorak. My husband doesn’t have one. He works in a bank.” Her lip trembled. “Worked.”

“I don’t want to worry…”

“Just suits,” she said.


She was back quickly, holding a charcoal-grey pin-stripe on a hanger, the dry-cleaner’s plastic still in place. Also a black roll-neck pullover. She giggled. “I was thinking collar and tie. Do men still wear ties? The pullover’s better. And cash.” She giggled again, the tears very close. “It usually helps.”

The door closed and he had a twenty-pound note in his hand.

In The Cut he bought scissors costing 99 p and a cracked hand mirror reduced to 50 p. They wouldn’t let him sit down in the café where he'd spent £1.50 on chips so he ate them watching the Thames slide by, burdened by the suit and pullover, being careful with his greasy fingers.

The next morning he crossed the river dressed in the suit and wearing his older garments hidden by the new pullover. Southwark library offered an accessible, well-equipped set of toilets; also a notice in which “mendicants” appeared twice. He went in unchallenged.

By wetting his hair first he was able trim the ragged edge overhanging his jacket collar, flushing the cuttings down the plughole. Last night’s tentative hacking had improved the contours of his beard. In a couple more days it would almost be stylish.

Upright and confident he entered the warmth of the reading room to take over a virgin copy of The Times. Two hours passed without harassment and even when it arrived the tone was deferential. Farquhar spoke cheerfully: “I'd arranged to meet a friend here but he seems terribly late. I suppose you’ll need to kick me out.” It was daring to take that line but it had the desired effect. The librarian, or whoever, glanced embarrassed at his watch and said, “Let’s say another half-hour.”

A watery sun had raised the temperature by the time Farquhar left the library and this time the café allowed him to eat his chips seated, the queue bustling about him.

That afternoon a discarded Financial Times gave him an idea. Tucking it under his arm he entered an HSBC branch determined to press his new persona to the limit. The interior looked like an amusement arcade – a dozen machines but nobody who resembled a bank employee. He occupied one of two vestigial chairs, shaking out the FT and starting to read one of the inner pages. Half an hour elapsed before he was cautiously approached.

“I’m enquiring about a loan,” he said loudly.

“Has someone seen you?”

“A young chap.”

“Did you, er, catch his name?”

“I fear I didn’t. Young.” As if experiencing a vision, Farquhar smiled seraphically. “He wore a suit.”

Forty minutes of centrally heated warmth ensued before two bank minions escorted Farquhar from the building, neither of them certain they were doing the right thing. “You do have those application forms don’t you,” said one anxiously. “Come in and see us when you want to open an account.”

It was dark now and Farquhar was tired, if not thermally exhausted. He circled the Festival Hall bar overlooking the Thames until he found a glass with an inch of red wine left. With that as justification he pulled over a bar stool and started to read a James Paterson paperback carefully shrouded in the FT. It was not exactly comfortable but he was isolated from the light flickering on the river and the sensations that went with that inhuman beauty.

At seven-fifteen the bar started to empty as most made their way to the concert hall. The suit continued to protect him but he was now more exposed to scrutiny. From time to time he remembered to look up and glance around, as if waiting for someone.

The next time he did so he’d been joined at the table by a woman about his own age, fifties. Her ankle-length astrakhan coat looked expensive.She shrugged as their eyes met. “Have you been mislaid by someone? As I have?”

“You could say that.”

“Someone who has the tickets?” she said.

“I certainly don’t have them.”

“No concert tonight, then?” She had a voice that might be described as educated, as if her punctuation were audible.

“Not for me at least,” he said

“Are you prepared to talk?”

“Quite prepared.”

“And yet…” she said.

So, despite everything he didn't look entirely plausible. “Honestly, I'd like to talk,” he said.

“I still feel I’m intruding.”

He sighed. “Not at all. But I should warn you, there is a degree of deception. You’d be talking to the suit.”

She took this in her stride. “You aren’t who you appear to be?”

He considered the odd, evasive day he'd just spent. "Let's say I don't live up to the suit."

"Does that matter?" she asked.

"Not really. I can be an affable talker."

She nodded. “I had that impression. God knows why. How do I come over?"

He glanced again; noticed her trim hair, her careful make-up. Only one thing stood out. “That's an expensive coat.”

"Too expensive?"

Perhaps. But did it matter? He shook his head. "Just expensive. It does you proud."

“I live with your suit; you live with my coat," she suggested

"A fair swap. But I'm squeamish about doing a blood oath."

It made her laugh. He added.“That person with the tickets?"

"As imaginary as the one you refused to talk about."

He nodded. “I might run to two coffees.”

She pointed to the glass with its inch of wine. “That would be less namby-pamby.”

End was rewritten in response to reader reactions

Tuesday 10 December 2013

No job for someone with a brain

 Become a journalist and prepare to be despised.  No regrets. Age 11 I told my father my aim. Age 15, ahead of dodgy O-levels, confirmed my choice. Some stepping stones:

Restaurant critic. Eight months quite enough. VR and I discovered eating-to-order is not as much fun as just eating. Drank well but meals out should be occasions not transactions.

Pretty girl 1.
Salutary. A feverish adolescent, I transcribed pretty Miss Barker as Parker. The shame touches me even now.

Pretty girl 2.  Now an editor with sarky reputation. Comely PR practitioner admits being terrified meeting me. No longer adolescent I find there's less delight in this than I imagined.

Venezuela. The Orinoco is close by but an international hotel is just that.  The steel plant is fabulous, however.

Celebrity. London men's club; hand is shaken: "Hello, I'm Denis Compton."  I knew that and wanted to say so. Modest, cheerful, youthful memory still intact.

Francophilia. "I'm ABC, commercial secretary, French embassy. We'd like you to speak about logistics in Paris. But first, what about lunch?"

Magic 1. Computer show in New York, post-dinner. It's snowing; a pal and I make our own tracks down the centre of the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue).

Magic 2. Winding up final publication details with book's author in San Francisco. Touring vineyards (with VR) in hired Dodge Charger in the afternoons.

Trying to find the exit I need at Shinjuku (?) tube station. A manly experience.

WIP Second Hand (50,220 words)
But Pratt’s serious conscientious face split suddenly with laughter and he slapped his hands flatly on his thighs. “This is fascinating, bloody fascinating. You’re (ie, Francine) changing – right in front of my eyes. You’re learning to doubt things; the essence of your new trade.”

Sunday 8 December 2013

The other numeracy

The World Of Perception: measuring events, artefacts and the passage of time according to our own (non-metric, non-Imperial, non-SI) system.

Soap (The minimum volume coefficient). VR begs me: can't we discard the final sliver of soap we use in the bath? It slips away so easily; treacherously difficult to retrieve. I'd noticed. But the unwrapping of a new bar of soap is akin to taking on a new and virginal lover. A solemn yet sensual moment. For the moment the sliver remains.

Novel writing (The illusory barrier). Second Hand has passed the 50,000-word mark, see below. Those seductive zeroes must mean something. But zeroes, by definition, add up to nothing, especially in a first draft. The pitiless editor and his uber-polished X-acto have yet to slash and burn, taking us back to the high forties. And where, in any case, would be The End? About 120,000 words - but who knows?

Bovril (The elusive last scrape). Paste and jar combine stygian colours, reducing this to guesswork. Aha, I see a brownish streak. I scrape and leave two separate and thinner streaks. I scrape again (twice) and leave four even thinner streaks. Again, and it's eight. I’m mining fool's gold here. Even if I were to continue until I had an infinity of streaks, each one atom wide, I would end up dissatisfied. Bovril is ineluctably mathematical.

WIP Second Hand (50,220 words)

Francine laughed. “… I was cloistered with a PhD (Chem), Cantab. Ted Priest isn’t given to broad-brush statements. Making sense of his answers was often a case of adding integer three to the square root of minus one. But… if I managed to ask him the right question he was willing to play the hypothetical game… he even tossed in a couple of his own speculations.”

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The treacherous muse

An earlier version of this story tried to do too much and ended doing nothing. It even contrived to proselytise nonsensically on behalf of atheism. The story, now rewritten, reverts to my original idea – music and religion.

Matins from the front
Short story (934 words)

“Black suits you.”

“Your father’s suit hung loose. Only the polo-neck fitted. You’re sure I’m not a bit James Bond?”

Anna laughed, winced, shifted in the wheelchair. “There’s a tradition for black in church. You could be a curate in waiting.”

They were escorted to the front row so that Anna’s splinted leg could project unhindered. Peter leant forward, “I’m likely to be caught out here – getting up and sitting down at the wrong places. I’ve nobody to watch”

Anna said. “Watch my left hand. How long’s it been?”

“Fourteen years. The day my voice broke.”

Yet when the service started it was as if he’d never been away. To the carolled supplication:

Oh Lord open thou our lips

his response was automatic:

And our mouths shall show forth Thy praise.

Peter stood behind and to the left of the wheelchair. Had a good view of her brown hair, hastily combed an hour ago. Could he take her to Matins? she’d asked suddenly at breakfast, he needn’t stay. Heck, he could do that. He’d sung Matins dozens of times. So he said yes and was disappointed she wasn’t more pleased. But then she’d needed to organise clothes to replace the anorak, salopettes and après-ski boots he’d arrived in.

O God, make speed to save us

And Peter sang out:

O Lord, make haste to help us.

He realised why he was staring at her brown hair. The piste had narrowed down to a gallery blocked by an instructor and his helmeted infants. Anna had switched to the outer, open side, to be wiped out by an Italian teenager travelling at speed. Her Peruvian cap had flown off and her hair had shone in the sun. Then she’d disappeared.

The organist was sounding the Venite. The chant was new to him and he needed a bar before joining in:

In his hands are all the corners of the earth:
And the strength of the hills is his also.

The sea is his, and he made it:
and his hands prepared the dry land.

The new chant had a four-note ripple: tricky but effective. Anna’s head turned slightly, responding to his voice.

No problems about the hymn, Awake my soul. Both tune and verses were completely embedded in his memory and he sang them ostentatiously, without reference to the hymn-book. The congregation resumed its collective seat and Anna whispered: “You still sing well.”

But the prelude to the curate’s sermon grated: “On a personal note we are delighted by the presence of our faithful sister, Anna, here this Sunday morning. Despite her travail on the slopes. God speed your recovery, Anna.”

Travail? As Anna, hatless, had fallen over the edge Peter had been outraged. Her goodness deserved better. Ignoring the instructors’ shouts he too had left the piste, unthinking, still angry, applying prodigious ski control down into a waste of rocks where she lay. Heard her mutter, “Oh Peter, don’t take such risks.” through gritted teeth. A tricky place and he was able to contribute, accompanying the retrieval team and the ambulance. With her drugged to the eyeballs he had liaised with the hospital and had eventually flown back on the charter plane. It was he who decided she’d be better off with her parents near Cirencester rather than at the London flat.

Wealthy but elderly, Anna’s mother and father had ceded him authority in their house and they had all met only at mealtimes. He appreciated their dilemma; it was a devout household with regular observances. They were grateful for his efforts and were doing their best to accommodate the secular boyfriend. When Anna had spoken about Matins it was they who had looked anxiously at Peter. Their relief was obvious when Anna explained things in terms of Peter’s youthful membership of a parish church choir. At least he knew the drill.

Life had been awkward but not unbearably so. Matins was, in fact, providing some musical relief and the sounds of the Te Deum quickly absorbed him:

All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.

That four-note descending figure which accompanied “everlasting”. Not all psalmody worked, that did.

To thee all angels cry aloud.

He remembered the vital elision of "thee" and “all”, spotting it ahead of time. Causing him to glance at Anna, head up, singing confidently. She’d got it too. Anna, the surprising English rose, devout yet passionate, devout yet practical. Anna who had brought scented lubricant to their Marriott assignation, who had used the whole of her body to kiss him. Who had laughed at his surprise, told him sex was God-worship as well as Peter-worship. And, yes, lapsed Peter could be an object of worship.

He adjusted his voice, heard it gain in purity. Sang louder and caused Anna to turn yet again.

Lord God of Sabaoth.

Sabaoth - three syllables instead of two. A more obscure version of the word but it matched the chant better. Unaccountably he was reminded of her stoicism when they lifted her from the rocks to the stretcher.

The noble army of martyrs…

Bearing pain. Martyrdom. Was that the link?

The Father of an infinite majesty.

The oddest line of all. A marching-band rhythm to cover the dancing polka of those last two words. Psalms? Adaptable?

The curate was there to shake hands. Saying to Anna: “Evensong is the more contemplative service. I hear your accident was horrific. Contemplation may be what you need.”

Anna smiled – at the curate and at Peter.

“Why not,” said Peter. “I've always liked Nunc dimittis.” He grinned. "The psalm if not the sentiment."

NOTE: The Te Deum is out of sequence. Deliberately. 

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Taste the spice, feel the warmth

I rarely use the car radio, despite its simplicity and its undeniable hi-fi. But sometimes Tesco can be so dispiriting... Punched the button just in time to hear the BBC Radio 3 presenter Sarah Walker (who's almost managed to suppress her northern accent but at the expense of inducing a disagreeable chuckle in her voice) announce Brahms' variations on Haydn's St Anthoni chorale. And suddenly Tesco and all other retailing engines faded as I embraced the great and good Johannes, knowing it made me a fuddy-duddy, knowing that the trend is away from his rich textures, knowing that his tunesmanship in this day and age is thought to be slightly simplistic. Said all this to VR and was astounded to receive this reply: "He has a sentimental attachment to me too. This was the first piece of music you played for me."

I never knew! And it all happened 54 years ago. For Brahms is surely the glass of glűhwein drunk in anticipation of a 3 km descent down a broad-boulevard blue run, groomed to show off one's parallel ski-ing abilities. A world now lost to my enfeebled legs but remembered in tranquillity and with affection.

Driving home, there was more. My last short story ended enigmatically with:

But couldn’t see playing Schubert trios day in day out. Felt sure the Brahms sextets would be a goer.

To which Beth commented:

I loved this story, and cringe for poor Brahms.

To which I responded:

Are you implying there's another mini-step between Schubert and Brahms I should have used?

To which she replied:

Oh no, just that poor old lumbering brown Brahms would be embarrassed, and since I love him so much anyway, I feel compelled to defend him.

So should we all, all love Brahms. 

Monday 2 December 2013

Stendhal is raunchier

I am re-reading  Stendhal's The Red And The Black, but in English. Joe is re-reading it in French. Decisions were made independently. I'd forgotten what a comic (yet tragic) character Julien Sorel is, also French/English attitudes when writing about sex in the 19th century.

Stendhal (1783 - 1842) - pictured - was born earlier than Dickens (1812 - 1870) yet you wouldn't know it if you compared R&B (1830) with what I've always thought of as Dickens' greatest novel, Bleak House (1852). I'll spare your blushes on the matter of sexual detail but Stendhal leaves you in no doubt about what has happened during the first great seduction, even if he stops well short of the wearisomely sweaty passages in present-day bonkbusters. Dickens, if my imagination serves me, would have sidled into metaphor for the same scene.

I blame Jane Austen (1775 - 1817) who writes about characters "making love". It is clear the phrase has lost something (rather, gained something) over the years.

A TOUGH CALL VR has just finished listening to my 22-CD set of Jim Norton reading the complete Ulysses and has also downloaded the novel to her Kindle for another day. Amazon, eternally egregious, asks her to rate Ulysses as good or bad. Laughing, she asks me. Sternly I tell her she must make up her own mind.

WIP Second Hand (49,426 words – so clo-o-se to 50,000)
A man wearing a Liberty tie that counterpointed his dark, hip-conscious suit (said). “And now you all know how far Derbyshire is from London. Yes folks, Palatewise is out in the sticks… We’re undeniably provincial. But in our business, provincial is good, provincial-rural even better. Carbon monoxide levels here are fifty percent lower than in Whitehall, particulates even lower.