Tag Archives: writing

Happy New Year

I’ve been meaning to write this since the beginning of the month and look, here we are at the end of it already and I still haven’t got round to it. I’ve been writing a book, that’s my excuse: it’s amazing what a period of enforced rest due to imperfect health can produce. My dear friend Marilyn is always telling me my trouble is (what she means is, one of my troubles is…) that I don’t write my stories over a concentrated enough space of time and that allows my complicated mind to creep in and start screwing everything up. My stock rejoinder of course leans on the fast food v. slow food metaphor, but I don’t know: I’m the last one to trust in the veracity of my own arguments. Anyway I got an idea I’d like to give “The Kings of Drumdollo” to Goody as a Christmas present (“Grandad, it really is a load of crap” not being one of the reactions I’d expect, even if it is, so dedicating a story as a Christmas-present is a reasonably sure way of not letting your confidence be given a severe knock); and so this I duly did, which meant that even after it was more or less finished at the beginning of December I had to add the frills and flounces straight away instead if being able to wait till after Christmas, and the frills and flounces are always a time-consuming job. (Oh – her reaction? Wow, cool. What did you expect?)

I like Christmas. I like the excess, the overindulgence, the anxieties and the unnecessary extra work, not to mention the games, the quarrels, the weird sugar-trance the kids get into. I like the idea that you can put all that into a box for a few days and then climb out of it afterwards feeling refreshed. I like the idea of the kids getting a whole dose of things which they can make use of in the coming year. Maddy’s got an incubator, to make up for the dismal performance of the hens last season (not to mention her own doomed efforts to hatch eggs in bed / in the oven / up her jumper). That I call a cool present. I also have got quite fond of Ellie’s Monster High dolls – but I’m clearly a sucker for any old junk – after all, I got to quite like the Lord of the Rings films after being exposed to them at least three times a week for an entire year (habit’s an extraordinary thing).

I also like the meditation on the mysteries of Incarnation which lie behind Christmas, though I’m generally barred nowadays from sermonising about them. So I thought I’d jump the gun a bit over the audio stories series that started with The Ape and the Apple, and which have not been going well due to technical problems, and temporarily skip The Island of the Imp, The Old Man and the Ostrich, The Unicorn and the Ugly, The Word that turns a Nerd into a Bird, and Willy and the Whale in order to submit “Hobble, Yobble and God” as my little contribution to Christmas. I don’t think it’s quite ready to post, but it should be soon, thanks to help from Ben and Iban. Ben has been quite the Grand Old Man on the Couch these last few weeks, due to his Broken Leg, sitting looking wise and imparting from his large store of information and technical know-how; so probably best not to mention publicly how he came by his injury. He’s going to be very circumspect hereafter.

On the subject of Children, some observations.

1. I suppose we tend to “take children seriously” to an extent that my parental generation didn’t. I mean, we feel a lot iffier about things like lying to our children for example, whereas when I was a kid our elders would lie to us with gay abandon, all for our own good of course, while always giving us a right slapping (verbal, I mean, naturally, or mainly) if we ever uttered the least little ghost of a fib designed to spare them any agonies over our lamentable moral condition. I do sometimes wonder, however, if this taking children more seriously is linked to their not inconsiderable importance as Consumers. This I would abhor, if it is the case. Childrens publishers seem very anxious to bend over backwards to produce stuff that’s “relevant” for kids nowadays. What they mean is, relevant to the importance of kids as Consumers (a “powerful sector of the market”, I’ve heard it said).. This simply means that children’s literature gets dumbed down – everything does if it gets exposed to commercial considerations; and one can, if so minded, chart the catastrophic decline in quality in kids’ literature between the ‘seventies / ‘eighties and the present day to see how it corresponds with the catastrophic rise in children’s spending-power or at least influence over their elders’ spending-power.. I’m reading an ‘eighties classic with Maddy (and Ellie, though it’s hardly seven-year-old stuff), Isobel Carmody’s Chronicles of Obernewtyn, which has been re-released by Bloomsbury, and most nights I have a good chuckle over the thought of her trying to get such material published, first-time, nowadays. Where was I leading? Oh yes: stop trying to please children, that’s what I think about children’s literature; give them something to chew on – even feel they’re “bored” by – not the kind of pap they expect and are expected to “enjoy”. If the reading material that emerges from such a decision proves too hard for the little dears (who have, after all, so little time due to all the technology-based activities which form such an essential part of the contemporary child’s life) why then burn down all the children’s publishing houses and stop taking up valuable real-estate space with them, and leave the youngsters to their fate. We’d like to think they’ll sink but they’ll probably swim. I don’t agree with teachers that “anything that gets them reading is a good thing”, quite the contrary: if they’re reading the literary equivalent of junk food, better to jack reading altogether, I’m not even convinced it’s very good for a child’s brain.

2. My last (I promise) hospital observation. When doctor or nurse says, “Open your eye a little bit for me?” (the question mark is because it’s phrased like a question); or “we’ll just pop you up on the bed…?” or, “now let’s see what we’ve got here – just pull your top up for me…?” the odd thing is we (or most of us – I can think of a couple of exceptions) don’t growl, go take a hike, as another part of us reckons we probably should. We take it on the chin, not consciously to please them, but because we’re actually perfectly happy to fall into an infantile place when hospitalised, or merely under the weather. Maybe it’s even an essential part of healing. If one clings to the great man one loses the little boy, the I Ching says. I suspect most of us don’t really cling to the great man too wholeheartedly. Hence our enjoyment of Christmas?


Filed under Writing

March 4

Keep them regular, and keep them short, Anna advises me, but neither regularity nor shortness have ever really been my virtues. On the other hand, as Anna says, nobody’s reading it anyway (I googled “Coldhome”, just to see for myself, and found “cold sores” and “cold remedies” as the main suggestions). So while I’m still enjoying myself and annoying nobody, I’ll let it go to its natural length, but I will try and work on the regularity thing. (Why did the notion of Prunes suddenly jump into my mind?)

I realize now that I’m actually no stranger to the blog idea. In the good old days, when I regarded myself not only as a man with a purpose in life but also as a Useful Member of the community, I was the editor of one of the local newspapers in the region. (Not a job I would recommend to anyone – a bit like being a pastor only without the Gospel; anything interesting, and you were earnestly enjoined not to publish it.) It was back in those Good Old Days that I hit on the idea of a weekly “letter from the editor”. As Dennis of “The Ploo” unkindly (but accurately) remarked: “he has to write a letter to himself because nobody else’ll write t’im”. But it was my way of keeping myself sane within the exhausting busy-ness yet searing monotony of the stuff I was “expected” to write, and I fancied it wasn’t altogether unentertaining for the readers, though, a bit like the Sunday Post in my youth, people tended not to admit that they ever read it and you got little feedback, or at least little that you could react to politely.

So, that was blog-ish: a bit of entertainment, a bit of ranting, a bit of news about one’s personal doings. And then there was a whole bunch of files I discovered on the laptop, in a folder called “Coldhome” that I frequently noticed on my way to “Stories” or “Poems and Songs” and wondered about, always assuming it must have been the start of someone’s praiseworthy, but doomed, attempt to begin a record of our doings here. I opened it the other week and discovered files with names like “Human Scale”, “Underconfident Mums”, “Education”, so I suppose I must be the guilty party: it certainly looked like a start on setting out some kind of rationale for our landing up here at the Coldhome Project…. Unfortunately I have absolutely no recollection of writing any of them, though they certainly look like my style too. Maybe I have a secret admirer/imitator, someone who must have nipped in here on a Friday night, a bit like the shoemaker’s Elves, and written them when I was otherwise engaged. Friday nights used to be when I and Charlie R had long conversations (well, as long as a bottle of Stewarts Cream) and got ourselves fired up over all kinds of stuff. After Charlie decided he had a heart condition, uncorroborated as it happened (long story: maybe for some future date), but decided to turn over a New Leaf anyway, there were no more raucous Friday Nights at Coldhome. On the evidence – ie. no more files mysteriously appearing – it must have been me. This character now has a name: David Dryburgh, who has posted his intention of writing some serious books. I hope he realizes how tough life is for serious writers at Coldhome.

I’m not sure if that particular blog would ever have taken off. Davie has a tendency to wander off into long theoretical rants, and just because he’s an admirer/imitator doesn’t mean I’m going to indulge him. I notice he also has a tendency to speak of himself as some sort of ancien regime character, who had his day but now is jaded, world-weary, full of the wisdom of the Failure. Neither Anna nor Annie will give him houseroom in our hearts or our caravans. There’s one piece where I – sorry, he – lists his various university acquaintances and their various notable successes in the world of real affairs (one of them was the UK Prime Minister at the time) and sorrowfully goes on to a “And then there’s me….” Paragraph. That’s all about what have I done with my life except produce a lot of children? And Annie would say it’s self-pitying, self-indulgent, and what’s wrong with having raised seven children anyway.

But back to poor old Gordon Brown. I’m interested to see that we were never under any illusions about his “coming to power”, as they call it. Anyone could have foretold that with that accent he was going to come a cropper. It’s not the way we do things here in the UK. His is the accent of a good second-in-command, but you don’t go getting ideas above your station. What will happen to BBC news broadcasting if Mr Salmond gets his way in Scotland I wouldn’t care to think: the whole posse of Mairs, Naughties, Warks, etc will be sent pelting up the road with all the hounds of Newgate on their tails. And what will become of the Labour Party….

We were over at Paul and Amber’s house the other night for the official launch of Paul’s Gaia’s Children. With this latest opus, Paul decided to throw himself into a proper self-publishing enterprise, via Matador Books, who seem to be considered one of the better self-publishing outfits. His whole endeavour has led to some fairly vigorous debates about the merits or otherwise of self-publishing. I see Anthony Horowitz pitched into the argument the other day in The Guardian, and I guess his comments about regular publishers representing a kind of quality control is just how I’ve always tended to see it.

On the other hand things are not right in publishing. “Have you heard of this Harry Potter business?” my editor asked me one day – must be quite long ago, I suppose – as we tucked into buns with mozarella and herbiness in some joint not too far from Vauxhall Bridge… (would I have remembered the conversation if there hadn’t been the association of the nice grub? We do march on our stomachs, after all.) That occasion lives on with me, anyway, as the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. It was indeed the first I’d heard of it – the “business” I mean, the Harry Potter Business. And overnight children’s literature seemed indeed to become a business – nay, an Industry. How the stars of Thatcher twinkled! In case you’re unaware of it, when something like Literature (I put in the capital L to distinguish it from blogs and reports) becomes an Industry, then Quality becomes something measured in bucks, Originality becomes “a difficulty”, an artist’s voice has to blend in seamlessly with the unison of the Mainstream, your work becomes a Product, your reader becomes a Customer and – because the Customer is always Right – has to be given exactly what he or she expects; meanwhile everyone involved stands around and informs you with faces as straight as a Donkey’s that standards have never been higher.

There’s nothing really new about it all. It must be over thirty years ago now that an editor from some big publisher got up and declared publicly that authors were two a penny and what he really wanted was a decent phototypesetter. I suppose it just hit children’s literature a bit later, Blyton and Dahl notwithstanding.

It seems to me that the relationship of writer to publisher is a bit like the relationship of whisky to water. You don’t want to water down good whisky, but you need it to get it through your bloodstream where it can do the most good. The whisky’s poison, of course, and another thing the water does is dilute the poison. And then of course good water makes the whisky taste sweeter – not mixed, of course, but well balanced one with the other. It looks to me as if what the publishing world wants is whiskyless water, probably they’re on some kind of a health kick. Anyway in a market democracy, the public gets what it deserves.

All that said, Paul’s launch had multiple associations with fantastic grub (Amber’s Deep South cuisine beautifully, if not quite congruously, counterbalancing Paul’s Far North setting) and fantastic whisky (actually cut-price Grant’s, but it had had some of our elderberries steeping in it since November), and everyone wishes him the best. And who knows? If The Smoke People continues to fall at every hurdle, perhaps I’ll follow suit. I suppose some snippets of The Smoke People wouldn’t be out of the way in one of these postings – but from which version, three, four or five?.

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Filed under Coldhome, Writing