Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Writing as Sculpture.

At last I am back to my novel and so am happy again. I can't understand why putting words together should make me so - but it does.

Working on a book, it seems to me, is sometimes a little like working on a sculpture. The first few attempts are like the plans on paper trying to get a voice or an angle - an idea of how it should look. Then comes the broad strokes trying to establish some shape - the rectangular block gradually wizened into something that roughly describes what the author was intending. Then perhaps it is cut a little more - the finishing touches. Last September I thought I was at that stage, making what I presumed to be the final strokes - but now I realise they weren't.

Most people agree that a book, or indeed any piece of writing, is best left for a while. I've heard it is a good idea to try not to think about it at all and then, when you go back, you will invariably find new insight. This certainly seems to apply to this book. After leaving it for several months it is now at last clear to me what I must do and where the book must go...at least I hope so.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Little Book Of Slugs and another sticky tale.

The other day a friend of mine called Dilys sent me this little book. It is published by the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. She said it was given to her as a present and she couldn't get it out of her house quickly enough so she gave it to me instead. It is, of course, now one of my treasured possessions.

It is a book to help people find alternatives to slug pellets which, it says, kill lots of animals they are not meant to kill including birds and mammals. It says there are 70 alternatives to slug pellets and by the look of this book it lists each one. The first is salt and advocates that you should be creative in this. For instance why just sprinkle randomly when you can write in large letters: SLUGS - YOU CAN END IT ALL HERE! along the path...

Quite so. I shall no doubt be dipping into this book for further inspiration from time to time.

This book deals with the British slug which of course mates in a rather boring fashion (including my kitchen floor one memorable night). However my blogging friend Debra Hammel has drawn my attention to the antics of a more exotic and adventurous slug called a banana slug. Unfortunately the 'banana' in this case has a sticky ending...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is surely one of the bleakest books I have ever read. It has two main characters - the father and his son. The mother comes in only as a memory. Other people appear only transiently but rarely last long enough to develop into characters. The only exception being an old man. The overall effect is that of an experimental play. There are just two players and all the rest is a derived from the interaction between players and audience. It is terse and astonishingly mesmeric.

It's the sort of writing that makes you slightly breathless at the beauty of it. That may sound a bit of an exaggeration but for me it is literally true. Somehow Cormac McCarthy manages to use exactly the right word - and it is so right, so perfect, that it feels like something to be treasured.

The book is set after some global catastrophe - exactly what that was is not made clear. There is an impression of heat, of burning, and the idea that the structure of civilisation is gone. Nothing useful has survived except inanimate things - cans of food, bottles and jars of oils. Everything is dessicated. The ocean is still there but it seems to flow thickly and even that is grey and lifeless. Contrary to the predictions I've heard - in this world it is not the rats or insects that survive but the sly conniving humans - because only they are clever enough to search out supplies and open tins.

I kept wondering what the book was about. Maybe it is simply, like the Lord of the Flies, an exploration of humanity and what can happen to us all when everything is taken from us. Civilisation, is after all, a veneer easily rubbed away or shed. Without it society breaks down and dreadful things happen. We regress. Of course we regress - there is plenty of evidence for this even in today's world of plenty.

But I think there is more to the book than just a description of doomsday. The boy, for instance, seems to act as a conscience to the father. He tags along questioning everything in such short sentences that after a couple of hundred pages (and there aren't much more than this) I began to wish for something longer. After a while I began to think that the book is too terse, too bleak. There is no let up, no opportunity to relax. I began to want the hint of something green - perhaps a blade of grass through all the greyness and ash.

The boy is scared - this is something he says again and again - so repetitively that I began to feel some of the man's impatience but perhaps this is the point. The relentless terseness and repetition drives home the points like a hammer on a recalcitrant nail. Do we have to do this? And if we are the good guys who are the bad guys - and how do we know? Is it enough just to declare yourself good? Gradually, through sulks and questions, the boy brings his father in line. In order to be one of the good guys you have to earn your place. You have to be unselfish. You have to make ridiculous sacrifices.
'Is it okay for us to take it?
Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.
They were the good guys?
Yes. They were.
Like us.
Like us. Yes.
So it's okay.
Yes. It's okay.'
The end is sad, affecting and inevitable. It is a book that through its repetition and gloom changed me and made me think. There could be no blade of grass, or, if there is, it is something that belongs to the future and must remain just a hope. It is a great book, something that grew in my mind after I'd finished it. Like a minimalist play it seemed to me to depend on an interaction between audience and player; it is only somewhere between the two that something can begin to grow.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

What I'm Doing 5:

What I'm reading:
Fiction: HALLUCINATING FOUCAULT by Patricia Duncker and
(have decided that I am going to try and and have a fiction and a non-fiction book 'on the go' at the same time).

What I watched last:
MYSTIC RIVER from a novel by Dennis Lehane.
(The film was good but unremarkable in my view - more like a film-for-TV than a movie that tried to do anything exciting. But it was well acted and interesting and I'd recommend it for an evening's distraction (although there is a bit of violence). However just been 'looking inside' the novel (courtesy of Amazon.com) and the original book looks really good with excellent writing - just from reading the first couple of pages I know more about the characters than I ever gleaned from the film - which is usually the case, I guess).

What I'm writing:
Still nothing very much.

What I'm hoping to accomplish tomorrow:
The start of general clear-out beginning with my study.

What I'm wearing:
A little blue dress in celebration - because, for most of today, the sun shone (rather tepidly, but still it shone)!

What I'm listening to:
VAMPIRES ARE ALIVE by D J Bobo (which you can hear by clicking here)
(Which tragically missed the final of the Eurovision song contest).

What I'm dreaming about:
Dancing at my university reunion in September.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Return from Languedoc

Last week I came back from Languedoc - started the day at 5.30am and spent most of it travelling and as I did so had an idea that it would be interesting to try and describe my day purely in terms of smells - so I have tried for part of it. It was lovely to see Zoe and Lee and La Maison Verte again. I was delighted to see one of the readers, Brenda, again too. And it was warm. The sun shone and for a short while I lay by the pool letting it sink in so I could remember for the rest of the year how this feels.

Here it is then, the day in smells...

I wake. An old house smell and as I lie there I think of how a ghost might smell, or whether it would smell at all and I also think of what someone has told me - about how she's woken every night at 2am and been aware, more than aware, knowing with certainty that there is something in the room with her too. And as soon as I think of this I remember being a child in the dark. The conviction of a presence under my bed or standing close. Something holding its breath waiting to do something and a dread making me rigid. And I am rigid again. Knowing I shouldn't believe in such things but in the dark I do.

But then the light comes through the curtain - a dim morning light not at all like the one I have become used to and with it heating the dust and I turn over, checking the clock on my phone.

Outside the door there a faint smell of perfume and then in the bathroom the smell of shampoo and soap, strong, clean, reassuring somehow.

Down the stone steps, down and down three flights and there is a smell of coffee - and the merest hint of last night's cooking (a reminder of tomato and basil soup which makes my mouth water again). And Isobel who has woken early and for a while we chat and I find out a little about her - what she does, where's she been, why she came. A calling voice makes me pick up my bag and follow Zoe to the car and we part. As we travel along the tree lined avenues I think briefly of Isobel. A woman I met once, briefly - and most likely shall never see again. It always strikes me as strange. All these people I meet once, begin to learn a little about and then quickly wish good-bye.

Then a car smell and faint whiffs of the countryside and we are at the rail station which has its own morning smell of something oily mixed with newsprint and I say good-bye and search for the platform. Then the smell of water as I break open a bottle and get on my train.

The train - what does that smell of? New upholstery, I think, if it smells at all. It is clean, swept out. Then a sharp smell of a French Granny Smith as I gnaw at its skin and then, eventually, the smell of Nimes station and the open air and the diesel of the bus and the cafe beside - coffee again, a cigarette (not mine), and bread and I wait feeling hungry.

At the airport more coffee this time joined by a croissant - up close, nuzzling my face as I break it open and tear at its soft inside. Then the French toilets - an assault of the nose, one after the other - old urine, soap, the stench of the hand drier - and then the shop with its sticky smell of sweets, papers, new cloth.

As I wait in the departure lounge a woman presses against me - a spicy sweaty smell - her clothes not quite fresh and then out through the doors and through banks of the lavender and I smell just that. I pick a flower and squeeze it in my fingers. A last smell of France. A last pull of warm air. Then, after an hour and a half on Ryan Air and the associated smell of warmed up sandwiches, crisps and drinks I am back in Liverpool again and the hot dusty smell is replaced by one much more familiar: the special smell of cold wet British tarmac.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What I'm Doing 4:

What I'm reading:
(Very, very funny satire on academic life).

What I watched last:
(At the request of Hodmandods Minor and Major. Pretty funny though somehow I fell asleep half way through for a few minutes. This despite the theatre being pretty disgusting - smelt strongly of sweaty bodies and burnt sugar and we had to wade through a large amount of other people's detritus to get to seats. It reminded me why I haven't been out to see a film for a long, long time).

What I'm writing:
Nothing very much.

What I'm hoping to accomplish tomorrow:
The shopping.
(Ambitions at an all time low at the moment).

What I'm wearing:
Terracotta linen trousers and sleeveless brown shirt.

What I'm listening to:
Talkin' Bout A Revolution by Tracy Chapman
(An old favourite - having heard it on a bus in Nimes felt the urge to dig it out and listen again).

What I'm dreaming about:
Going down to London to swan around looking at art exhibitions and have a drink with one of my editors next week.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How Can I Capture A Free Spirit?

This is my last answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

Capturing a free spirit is like capturing a bubble in your hands. A cage of fingers. A clam snapping shut. A slight sensation of moisture. But when you look inside there is nothing there. Nothing at all. By capturing a bubble you invariably destroy it. The same applies to spirits. Spirits are best kept free. Captured too suddenly they become something else - a trace of what they were - something like ash or a dried-up husk.

If you wish to capture a free spirit intact you have to be careful. They have to be wooed to a safe place and coaxed into staying still. You have to promise them that their capture will be just temporary and of benefit to them. You could tell them they will learn something new, or that they will see something beautiful or unusual. Or you could tell them about the whiff of the dawn and the long lingering dusk of an Arctic autumn - or you could simply tell them that you love them unconditionally. Then they might walk carefully towards you balancing on a line that's not there, their long delicate limbs stretching out tentatively testing to see if it safe. Spirits tend to be shy, slightly awkward, their eyes big and wondering. When they sit they fold onto themselves and are constantly ready to rise without warning.

After they are sitting beside you it is important to move slowly. You have to be sly. You have to reassure them that you care about them and tell them secrets about yourself so that they come trust you and share some of their own. It is then that you have them. Don't let them know. It is easy to stop them from guessing. Free Spirits are naive and want to think the best of people. They take words literally. When they hear you say 'Speak soon.' they assume you mean just that. And if you tell them to take care of themselves they will be touched at your consideration. Like bubbles they are easily hurt. Their skins are as thin as a film of soap.

It is a pity to destroy a them because they are rare and, because of that, inordinately precious. I used to know one intimately, it used to lie beside me when I slept, but one night I moved too quickly and too insensitively and the next day it was gone. It promised me it would always return to tell me of its adventures but I doubt now that it ever shall.

What Is Love?

This is my ninth answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

Selflessness. I think that is the most important characteristic. And the art of letting go. I have thought about this for fifteen minutes and that is all I can come up with. Love is such a multi-coloured emotion but I think unless there is no selflessness then there can be little love.

Why Do Gnats Fly In Circles And Never Hit Each Other?

This is my eighth answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

Mosquitoes (and I am assuming they are the same animals as gnats) have random flight paths - hence the spirals. A change in direction is dictated by sensory hairs on their antennae. They are particularly partial to big blonde fidgety beer-drinking women with smelly feet wearing dark clothes and lots of perfume (since they fly towards movement, warmth, increased levels of carbon dioxide, lactic acid, humidity and certain chemicals) and less partial, I suspect, to each other. This is probably why they never hit each other.

When Did You First Know Who You Are?

This is my seventh answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

Sometimes I hear my Welshness when I speak. Only I know it's there; a lilt where there shouldn't be one, if I were English. When I was young though, and only heard my parents speak, my accent was strong. It was because of this that I was picked on to read (out aloud in front of assembled masses) when I first went to infant school. I have always been small (but surprisingly dense) and this, together with the Welsh accent, must have been different enough to appeal to the teachers in the part of rural Lancashire where I was living then... and it was then, aged four or five, that I remember realising that I didn't like this scrutiny at all. I think that was the first time I became aware of who I was; a bit strange, a freak or oddity to regard and discuss. In consequence I felt a strong urge to hide.

Since then I think I have constantly felt out of place. Everything I seem to have ended up doing in my life seems to have been just a little weird and eccentric. There have often been moments when I have looked around and realised the party seems to be taking place elsewhere and the space around me is empty.

But just recently I have come to realise that that most people feel like that at one time or another. We are all of us alone - and it is this that we have in common. This isolation that we all feel also, ironically enough, brings us together.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Who Is The Man Who Lives Inside The Sun?

This is my sixth answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

Mr Hot*, the man who lives inside the sun, has hydrogen to burn. He smiles and spits it out. It gives rise to a solar wind and then a firestorm wavering at the poles. If only I could ride this out. If only I could launch myself like a surfer and catch this wind and let it take me to the farthest reaches, past planets and satellites, asteroids and comets. Like the aurora borealis I guess I would sparkle and waver too when I hit the atmosphere. Ah, so many forbidden transitions giving out so much light - white yellow green red. See me and wonder.

He is becoming smaller, though, the man that lives inside the sun. Wizened. Well at least the core of him. As his inner part is consumed so his outer parts expand. Hydrogen becomes helium. More and more of it, hotter and hotter, until it burns too, exploding out again, a helium flame, cooler than hydrogen, and redder. So many metamorphoses. From the yellow of youth to the red of middle age. A red giant. A cool temper. Lighter. Weaker. So weak some of his planets will have escaped from him. The rest he looks on benignly and swallows a little with his fire.

Then what next for the man in the sun? I hear that he might become a little mad and throw off his outer layers. It comes to us all, I suppose, the senility of old age. He will throw off his clothes and expose his core -and then he will fade. A white dwarf. His true self exposed to the cosmos. I was great, he will tell anyone that listens. In my day.

*Hat tip to Andrew.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Where Is Shallowland And What Lives There?

This is my fifth answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

This is easy. Shallowland is the town at the end of the road that leads to a place where there are no ideas and is where the Smooth-brainers live. The walls are high and thick. The televisions are on loud and constantly. They all have Sky.

This didn't take 15 minutes but some answers don't need that long.

How Can I Get A Memory Out Of My Head?

This is my fourth answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

I have many memories I would like to remove completely. Just the thought of them makes me squirm in my seat: the time I asked a teacher where she got a prism of glass that made rainbows on the desk, then for some reason became so stupidly shy I ran away without waiting for the answer; the time I sang out of turn during a choir performance; and the time I ran into a motorcyclist in the dark. He smashed into my windscreen and rolled over my car and then lay on the road as if dead - but he wasn't, thank God. So yes, there is much to expunge - so how am I going to accomplish this?

I suppose that in order to get a memory out of my head I will need to know first where it is stored. Some memories are stored in the folds and crevasses of the outer brain, the gyrus and the clefts of the cerebral cortex. A touch on this grey wrinkled surface with a surgeon's probe can rouse them into life so maybe a heated wire can exorcise them into oblivion. Each embarrassing incident, each hurt that is still tender after months and weeks, could be picked out and discarded like an unwanted shoot.

However this would only work on simple memories - a single incident perhaps - neatly formed and separate. Most memories are more complicated. They are intermingled with emotions and other memories with deep roots and entangled connections and to cauterize one might cause a loss too severe to contemplate.

New memories are stored elsewhere. They are swept away and buried deep inside a tiny structure shaped like a seahorse called the hippocampus. Nerves branch and grow new buds until there is a thicket too complicated to disentangle. These, I fear, would be a lost cause. The only solution might be to wait until winter and the leaves are shed and the memory shunted off to somewhere more accessible.

It is a strange and perplexing thought that all these memories are produced by tiny cells firing and connecting. These same cells ensure that I move my hands to catch a ball before I've even consciously registered that the ball exists and is falling towards me: I see, I act and then I become aware.

For days after I'd hit the motorcyclist I returned to the spot close to my home. It seemed to me he'd come from nowhere because by the time I'd consciously registered the crash I was a couple of metres down the road away from the junction. Only gradually I came accept what had happened. His lights weren't on so I couldn't see him. He had been driving on the road and hadn't been able to stop. If I think about it I can still remember his scream as the ambulanceman stretchered him from the road. That is one of my memories I would like to erase but it is not the worst. My worst memories are so bad I never talk about them but they are there all the time - the collection of neurons forever entangled with despair. The motorcyclist got away with a few broken bones and later recovered. He was lucky and so, perhaps more so, was I.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tell Me About a Road that leads to a Place Where there are No Ideas

This is my third answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

There are some people who have brains which are perfectly smooth. This means they have no ability to connect ideas together in their minds. They can add two numbers together very well. They can say 2 + 2 = 4 but they have no idea when and how 2 + 2 = 5. Which it does sometimes because 2 is not always 2. It can sometimes be 3 or even 1. It depends on how generous the '2' is feeling.

For these people 2 will always be 2 and although they cannot form new ideas in their mind they are especially good at taking ideas that already exist and making a profit from them. They usually end up much more wealthy than people with crinkled brains but they are fundamentally unhappy because they know, deep down, that they are merely ciphers. Being a cipher is one of the most unhappy states of man because a cipher leaves nothing behind when it dies.

The smooth-brained people tend to live together where they feel safe. They build great walls around their houses and they never write blogs. They also rarely read them and that is one of their major characteristics. Sometimes the big houses of the smooth-brained coalesce. Their walls join and form bigger walls with many layers. In some places there are villages and even cities of smooth-brained people and they spend all of their days talking to each other about money and deals and pretending to be excited about the crinkled-brain people and at the same time taking their ideas and making more money out of them.

Although they prefer not to they do have to sometimes speak to the crinkled-brained people and read their blogs. There is something, a device, that stops the computers of smooth-brained people picking up too many ideas because the smooth-brain is easily overheated. Ill-temper is always the result of this which leads them to losing deals (which is the worst thing that can happen to a smooth-brain), so the best thing they can do is venture out of their high walls and visit the crinkle-brained bloggers. For this, of course they need roads.

This road leads to the place where there are ideas - but it also leads to a place where there are no ideas at all. Except for how to make money. Which doesn't count.

Bloggers should never go along this road otherwise they will very quickly become ill and die. In which case their ideas will escape from them. The crinkles (which is where the ideas are stored) will crawl from their brains back to where they come from and what is left is a smooth-brained cadaver which will be picked up and carried to the high walled city and be buried with much ceremony as one of their own.

Why Can I Smell When It's Going To Snow?

This is my second answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here (sometimes with the minimum amount of editing).

Like many things cold, the air that anticipates snow is sluggish and has no energy. It drifts slowly up the nostrils taking its time and because of this it is, for a short while, a strain to breathe. Some people mistake this for excitement but they are wrong. Snow is no more exciting than a gale-force wind but is much more exciting than rain. Rain is the dullest weather except when part of a storm.

So the first smell of snow is drawn into the nostrils with a gasp. There it is picked out rather like a fly on fly paper in a grocer's shop and, once trapped, is quickly drawn onto the fancy-shaped nerve-ending that only twangs when complete. The snow-smell is one shape and the nerve-ending is the opposite so together they form a whole that convulses with shock.

This shock travels. It actually takes no time at all. Pretty soon the whole nerve is shaking and convulsing and jigging around until it reaches the olfactory bulb (which a primitive organ most creatures have). Now the olfactory bulb is a strange little thing. It is joined to the bottom of the temporal lobe close to our store of memories of sights and faces. So memories cause us to sniff the air and smells cause us to remember.

And so the cold air that comes before snow can remind us of sledging down a hill with four friends when we were undergraduates and twenty, or that time we stepped onto a frozen lake and heard the ice crack beneath our feet, or that time we first helped our children build snow men and showed them how well a piece of coal does for a nose.

Which brings me back to the smell of snow which some people might think is no smell at all. But they are wrong. As I've shown.

What is the Book Whisperer?

This is my first answer to the weird questions I asked about a week ago. I allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time I post here.

He lives behind the shelves. When he moves book mites fall from him; tiny creatures that fall through the air like dust motes. Up close they are ridged like beetles with many legs.

Sometimes the Book Whisperer seems large. He knows all things. He can tell you the page on which Lady Chatterley first kissed Mellors and the correct way to pronounce the names in the Lord of the Rings. He can also tell you when you first understood the plot of Never Let Me Go and how old you were when you last looked for Borrowers under the skirting board. He knows the best time of year to read Enduring Love and the times of your life when you should never read Beloved. Certain books he will warn you not to open because they will make you bitter and others he will tell you will make you so happy that your heart might burst. It is in your own best interests to listen.

But most of the time the Book Whisperer is silent. When you start to read he becomes small again and lands like snow on your shoulder to listen to your thoughts. He fingers your mind and absorbs its contents into his soul.

I have never seen him. He is something I only know is there because of the touch of his breath on my face and the smell of him when I turn over the pages. Both of these are difficult to describe because they are unlike anything else that I know. The closest thing I can think of is the air that the lips of a lover displaces just before they kiss you.


I am pleased to note that Minx, and Minx's friend, 'The Moon Topples' have posted answers to these questions - and very witty they are too.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What I'm Doing 3:

What I'm reading:
THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy.
(Stark, strange and mesmeric so far)

What I watched last night:
THE HORSE WHISPERER from a novel by Nicholas Evans.
(But only the first 20 minutes since it did not agree with the Hodmandods' sensitive stomachs - I expect the book is much better).

What I'm writing:
Revision of my talk on the meaning of madness.

What I'm hoping to accomplish tomorrow:
My packing for France.
(Everything is taking me ages at the moment. If I start first thing in the morning I'm hoping I'll be finished by tomorrow night).

What I'm wearing:

What I dreamt about last night:
I had been commissioned to paint a big picture in oils for a children's group (this is strange because I've never been commissioned to do anything). It turned out to be a moody dramatic piece and just before I'd finished I ran out of blue and purple paints so I went to get some more. But when I came back they told me my services were no longer required and they had finished it without me. Then I saw my picture - it had been 'finished' with a trite big smiling sunflower covering (and obliterating) all that I'd done.

A very symbolic dream.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Weird Questions

I gave my friend Adrian these questions (except for the last which I've changed) and he gave me some magnificent answers. If anyone else would care to answer them I'd love to hear them.

1. What is the Book Whisperer?

2. Why can I smell when it is going to snow?

3. Tell me about a road that leads to a world where there are no ideas.

4. How can I get a memory out of my head?

5. Where is Shallowland and what lives there?

6. Who is the man that lives inside the sun?

7. When did you first know who you were?

8. Why do gnats fly in spirals and never hit each other?

9. What is love?

10. How can I capture a free spirit?

Over the next few days, before I go to France on Wednesday, I am going to try answering my questions myself. I am going to allow myself just 15 minutes to respond and whatever I write during this time will be posted up here after I come back on Friday.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What I'm doing 2:

What I'm reading:
SATURDAY by Ian McEwan
(which I'm hoping to read by Thursday - heh)

What I watched last:
THE SOUTH BANK SHOW on the Macbeths of modern times presented by the magnificent Melvyn Bragg
(and with whom I have fallen slightly in love ever since we had a long and slightly drunken (on my part) conversation in January).

What I've just been writing:
A piece on creativity for John Baker's blog.

What I'm hoping to accomplish today:
The synopsis of my novel.

What I'm wearing:
Pink striped linen trousers and raspberry-coloured sleeveless top teamed with a pale green jacket which was obviously eye-catching (and not in a good way) because I got the once-over by a few people when I visited the doctor's surgery this morning.

What I'm dreaming about:
A day without rain.
(sorry Anne S, I am trying to think about the poor drought-plagued farmers in parts of Australia, but then it pours it down again and all I can selfishly think about is how we're all being cheated of summer).

Monday, July 09, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

By 'popular' request comes the Hodmandod definitive review of Pan's Labyrinth...

Here is a scene from somewhere in the middle.

A child draws a chalk outline on a wall and where she draws appears a door. She steps through and she is in a world where a man sits at a table heavy with food. The man is motionless, long-nailed and his face blank and without eyes - these rest on the plate in front of him like two large berries. Pictures on the wall indicate his unsavoury past-time: killing children - a point reinforced by the pile of children's shoes the child has had to pass when she enters the room.

What happens next is satisfyingly surreal (which of course I cannot tell you for fear of spoiling).

In some ways the laws and prohibitions of this world are familiar from the tales we all grow up hearing: the loaded table of delicious food that must not be eaten; the egg-timer that indicates when the door into this world slams shut; the monsters that wake; the small child that is in danger; even the underground setting is something I have seen before in fairy stories. It is Angela Carteresque and deliciously enticing and disturbing.

But there is another world outside the door too. This is Spain occupied by the fascists and yet it is conspicuously Germanic. Now the pile of shoes beside the giant makes new resonances. Whose shoes? What is the eyeless giant? The soldiers are barbaric, vicious and violent, but also unbearably tragic. In Spain, the film reminded me, the fascists were victorious and until fairly recently this country was ruled by a dictator.

This is what I think the film might be about: the forgotten tragedy of Spain and the heroism of some of its people.

The plot contained all the annoying illogicalities of a fairy tale but were entirely right and necessary because of that. I can't say I enjoyed this film - it was too thought-provoking and tense for that - but it held my attention (rather too well - I was not ready for the violence which comes without warning) and I think it was well-worth seeing. It stays with you for a long time afterwards - haunting you in a way that is not entirely pleasant but somehow cathartic.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

What I'm doing

What I'm reading:
THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters.

What I watched last night:

What I last downloaded from iTunes:
IDUMEA by the Sacred Heart Singers.

What I'm writing:
This blog post - ha!

What I'm hoping to accomplish today:
A clear passage from this desk to the kitchen sink.

What I'm wearing:
A bright green kaftan.

What I'm dreaming about:
Warm terracotta tiles and cold white wine.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Interview with Chris Simms

I've returned from our few days away more morose than ever. It rained. The wind blew. One day I hope to say more but just now I want to slink away into my shell.

In the meantime here is an interview with Chris Simms, the crime writer who will be guest author at the Languedoc holiday and has been kind enough to answer my questions about his excellent book SHIFTING SKIN and life in general.


Chris Simms has worked in airports, nightclubs, post offices and telesales centres. After travelling throughout the world he settled near Manchester, England. Now 36 years old, Chris is married with four young children and works as a freelance copywriter.

His compelling debut novel, ‘Outside the White Lines’ is a psychological thriller set on Britain’s motorways and is described by his publisher as having ‘the psychological immediacy of Ruth Rendell plus the gritty violence of Mo Hayder’.

His second novel ‘Pecking Order’ was selected as a Best British crime novel by Deadly Pleasures magazine. His third novel, ‘Killing the Beasts’ is the start of a series set in Manchester and starring DI Jon Spicer. It was selected as a Best Crime book for 2005 by Shots magazine. Its sequel, Shifting Skin, was released in July of this year to widespread critical acclaim.

Questions about writing:

C.D: Shifting Skin, as well as being an exciting and absorbing piece of crime fiction is also a portrait of a city, particularly its underbelly. Do you actively research these places for your books?
C.S: Generally the places that feature are places I’ve spotted beforehand and mentally filed as having potential for a scene. Sometimes, when plot developments necessitate a scene in a particular geographical spot, I’ll get out my A to Z, identify a suitable location, drive there and scout it out. This was the case for the Butcher’s dumping grounds around Belle Vue in ‘Shifting Skin’.

C.D: You obviously know police procedure very well too - the detail gives the book a certain feeling of authenticity without being too obtrusive. How much research do you do for each novel? Was there any special research you had to do for SHIFTING SKIN?
C.S: I have a good friend who is now quite a senior officer in the GMP – she answers any police procedural questions I might have. For ‘Shifting Skin’ I also contacted a childhood friend who has gone on to become a maxillo-facial surgeon. The internet is also very useful – especially for the escort services described in ‘Shifting Skin’.

CD: The characters are also convincing. Are they based on anyone you know?
CS: More often they’re amalgamations of several people I’ve met or read about.

CD: Where did the idea of the amateur sleuth, Fiona, come from? Do you intend to do any more like this, or do you intend to stick to having police as the main protagonists?
CS: Fiona arose purely because I needed someone to have heard a crime in the next door room of a hotel. She developed from there. There’ll certainly be other strong support characters in future novels – though not necessarily amateur sleuths.

CD: What sort of crime writer are you? How would you describe your interests?
CS: I’m very job-like in the sense that work and family commitments dictate exactly when my writing can occur, though I do scribble thoughts at all hours of the day and night. I think my interests are quite varied – I love physical exercise, but I also love sneaking off to the cinema on a quiet afternoon when the kids are at school / nursery.

CD: I notice that you describe yourself as a copywriter. How does this fit in with the business of being a novelist?
CS: Working with words – and using them economically – is essential to both copywriting and novel writing. I would prefer to be able to afford less time as a copywriter though.

CD: I would describe Jon Spicer as the Morse of Manchester - have you ever been approached by a TV company?
CS: Unfortunately not – I would love to be involved with a screen play and see him on the screen.

General questions :
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
CS: Sleeping rough one time in an Italian park, I woke up to find giant size ones all over my sleeping bag.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
CS: No idea! Seeing family members do well fills me with what feels like a very pure sense of pride.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
CS: I once went head first through a car windscreen – I guess that was life changing since I should have been injured far more seriously than I was. A lucky get off.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
CS: Where to start? Recently, a documentary I saw showed a couple of live upturned turtles in a dodgy street market in China. The slow movement of their flippers as they vainly tried to right themselves was achingly sad.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
CS: I’d like to be less constrained by politeness.

CD: What is happiness?
CS: Accepting your limits and working within them.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
CS: Start the logistics of getting four young kids ready for breakfast.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Short Break

Just going off to Bath for a few days for a much-needed break. Hoping to return rejuvenated and ready to get on with life again...