Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Oh Christ, what's the point?

During my early years, say eight to sixteen, I developed the two interests that have defined my inner man; music and reading.

My father being a big band fan I was raised on a diet of Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, etc., and so, on leaving school at sixteen with no question of any further education, I wanted to become a musician.

Of course I had to earn a living so this had to be my spare time pursuit.  I’ve always been a quick learner and I tried various instruments, but then, through a combination of co-incidences, I settled on double bass.  The main reason was that my mum’s tenant ran a band and needed a bass player, and the secondary one was that practising trombone, trumpet or saxophone upset everyone nearby, while the bass was acceptably quiet.  Six weeks later, just seventeen, I was a regular member of a smashing little semi-pro swing band.

I played regularly in gradually elevating company until I joined another swinging little band alongside John Pearce, one of the best jazz pianists this country has ever produced.  If you know about jazz and I tell you we were like Stan Getz with the Oscar Peterson Trio, you’ll get the idea.  Under torture, I would probably concede we weren’t quite as good as that, but in trying for the summit we surely reached well above the tree line!

One thing led to another and one particularly boozy night I smashed into the back of a Humber Hawk sitting at the traffic lights with his hand brake on while I was doing fifty.  That was a big old heavy car and he only moved three feet so you can tell it wasn’t very pretty.  The car and the bass were irretrievably mangled, but I escaped relatively unscathed.  It was almost on the doorstep of Whipps Cross Hospital at Leytonstone in East London and after a couple of days in there I was allowed to stagger off home.

Looking back, it’s a strange thing.  I don’t mind admitting the smash scared me, and for years afterwards I flinched whenever someone’s brake lights came on in front of me; still do, really.  That’s understandable, but the other effect was that, in my mind, I blamed the bass for the accident.  It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been playing bass.  It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in the band.  And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been drunk, driving a long tired way home at three o’clock in the morning.  So that’s clear then; it wasn’t my fault, it was the bass’s fault!

My love for the music never wavered, but the net result of that blame game was that I never actually played again.  I went years not wanting to play, and by the time I thought seriously about starting again many other things had reared their heads in my life; two wives, (separately!), family, mortgage, business.  And the thought of getting out on the road again as an older man with a bass in my arms was too daunting.  The late nights, the younger guys, the inevitable boozing, the changing jazz styles; combined it was all too much.

The other strange mental thing was that the love never stopped until I had a brush with death again with a very serious heart condition.  I died on the operating table in St Thomas’s Hospital and they couldn’t get my heart to start again.  It took them an hour, and thank God they persevered.  I don’t know why that should have affected anything mentally, but my love for the music simply faded away, and now, fifteen years later, it’s only a memory.

And then there’s the reading.

From the age of about eight I started reading books, and not children’s or even young adults stuff either, but proper books.  True, it was things like Moby Dick, Jock of the Veldt, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island; all good stuff of course, but hardly required reading for someone so young.  I learned by having a dictionary alongside and looking up every word I didn’t know.  I think I matured quickly during those early years anyway, as the friends I had were all older than me.  I don’t seem to have had much of a normal childhood because I set off running to become an adult as soon as I could.  (Now that I’m older it’s the opposite, I think I’m young for my age, but that’s another story!)

My love of reading has stayed with me, and if anything has strengthened with the years.  There’ve been periods when I had so much going on that I didn’t have much time for reading, but the love is stronger than ever.

Because of this, from time to time I’ve tried to be a writer.   Sometimes life took over and swamped everything, but since my early twenties I’ve tried to get stories and other stuff down on paper whenever I can.  When you think of all the years since then my total of two novels, two novellas, and about twenty short stories doesn’t seem all that much, and even I can tell some of it’s not very good.  Other than reading I’ve never had any sort of writing instruction, so it’s only in the last few years that I feel I’ve arrived at my style; a smooth easy read of stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Apart from friends and family, who are of course encouraging, no one’s read any of it so I don’t know if it’s any good or not.

Since joining blogspot I’ve learnt more about the sheer mechanics of writing, simply from reading stories and comments, and particularly some very helpful blogs, than I have in the whole rest of my life!  Is it too late I ask myself?  O.K., O.K., I know.

The way I work is not perhaps the best way to produce worthwhile stuff.  My ‘method’ has been to lie in bed or sit on the loo or walk down the lane or stop eating in mid mouthful, or laze in the bath, and have an idea; just a basic idea, nothing more, and then to start at page 1.  Having that small thought, often just an ending, I then allow the story to write itself to match the idea.  I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious, but I just want to write the story, not with any thought of getting it published anywhere, just write it down the way I would like to read it myself.   I try to get the first draft to be as good and as smooth as I can, no shitty first draft for me, and then to edit off the rough edges.

Sometimes I look at something I’ve written and I think, “That’s pretty good, I don’t want to change a bloody word of that,” but then another time I look at the same thing and I think, “Oh, Christ, what’s the point?”



Monday, 27 September 2010

Shortest of shorts.

Most people will know the famous six word story reputed to be from Ernest Hemingway,

For sale, baby shoes, never worn,

or the alternative,

For sale, wedding dress, never worn.

There's also the lost love epic,

Boy finds girl, boy loses girl,

and the defiant (and loosely translated!) one from Edith Piaf,

No, I don't regret a thing.

There's the Roman who said,

I came, I saw, I conquered,

Or my alternative love triangle tale,

She came, I saw, he conquered.

But now that it's autumn my favourite is,

I came, I saw, I conkered.

Well, you've got to try, haven't you?

Friday, 10 September 2010

It's all rubbish.

While researching one of my works in progress about a lone sailor I came across some info about rubbish in the sea.  We all know it exists, but I was amazed at some of the facts I discovered.

Fifty years ago, most floating rubbish was bio-degradable. Now it’s 90% plastic, and practically indestructible. Four years ago, the UN Environment Programme estimated that there were then 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in every square mile of ocean. And that was four years ago, so what is the figure now? 80% of the rubbish is carrier bags, bottles, flip flops, children’s toys, tyres, yoghurt pots, etc., in short the detritus of a modern consumer society. Last year, rescuers searching for the wreckage of Air France flight 447 which had disappeared over the South Atlantic, were astonished to find that their instruments were not picking up any signs of wreckage, but were detecting vast amounts of rubbish instead.

The rubbish is not necessarily dumped there directly; plastic rubbish gets blown out of littered streets and landfills, and is conveyed by rivers and drains to the sea. It’s also washed off beaches. Once in the water, 70% sinks to the ocean floor, while the remainder floats, usually within 20 metres of the surface. Out to sea the rubbish gets drawn into huge circular currents known as ‘gyres’, and accumulates in their centres. Huge pools of plastic are building up in each of the world’s five major gyres, and the greatest known concentration is in the North Pacific where around six million tonnes have come together to form what’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by campaigners – it’s a pool of rubbish twice the size of Texas!

Scientists have warned about plastic rubbish in the oceans since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the true scale of the problem was discovered by a Californian sailor called Charles Moore, who was on his way home from a race in Hawaii. He and his crew were motoring across the top of the North Pacific gyre and they watched an unending procession of bottle caps, toothbrushes, Styrofoam cups, detergent bottles and plastic bags pass by them. “It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing past,” he said. The plastic is impossible to photo from the air, and is hard to see unless you’re in the middle of it. Even then, the larger pieces of plastic are only the beginning of the problem. They swim in a plastic soup of tiny particles that are either plastic fragments worn down by friction and exposure to sunlight, or resin pellets no more than 2mm across known as ‘nurdles’, the micro ingredients from which disposable plastics are made. Billions of tons of nurdles are shipped around the world each year, and a lot of them are spilled, lost, and flushed down the drains. Beachcombers call them ‘mermaid’s tears’.

Biologists are only now beginning to work out the threat posed by nurdles and other flecks of plastic. Fish, birds and whales mistake them for tiny fish and plankton, and then find them impossible to digest. More worrying still is the fact that they attract heavy metals and toxins in the ocean, industrial chemicals such as DDT and PCBs that would otherwise have stayed out of the food chain. Once consumed by smaller animals, the pollutants become more concentrated as those animals are eaten in turn by larger animals, and of course eventually by humans. “Our legacy is that you can buy certified organic farm produce, but no fishmonger on earth can sell you a certified organic wild caught fish,” said Moore.

According to the UN Environment Programme, general plastic rubbish kills a million seabirds every year worldwide, and 10,000 marine mammals and turtles. The animals die strangled by discarded fishing nets, or choked on rubbish they have eaten. Albatross populations in North Hawaii, a marine sanctuary for God’s sake, have been devastated by plastic. The giant birds have been found dead, their stomachs full of toothbrushes and syringes. Fulmar Petrels suffer a similar fate. The bodies of Fulmars washed up on North Sea coastlines have been found to contain on average 45 pieces of plastic per bird.

And the worst news about all this is that it’s now too late, we can’t clean it up. It would take an enormous amount of resources to remove six million tonnes of plastic from the North Pacific gyre, and there’s a total of 100 million tonnes worldwide. If you try to net it all, the mesh required to gather up all the tiny plastic particles would be so small that it would also entrap millions of fish, devastating the ocean’s ecology. Many of plastics best qualities make it difficult and uneconomical to recycle. Charles Moore has been studying the problem for the last thirteen years, and he says, “Trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would bankrupt any country, and kill wildlife in the nets as it went.”

It’s too late to clean up what’s there already, so the challenge is to rethink the way plastics are used, and try to stop them reaching the oceans in the first place. Whatever happens though, much of the plastic already in the ocean will be there for centuries to come, and some predict that it will eventually form a layer in the geological record.

Leo Baekerland, a Belgian chemist, developed the first synthetic polymer in 1909, Bakelite, but he couldn't have foreseen the problems that would be created for the environment in the years since then. The First World War saw the invention of the first PVC, nylon was invented in 1935, and then in the period after the Second World War we had acrylics, carbon fibres and polyurethane, to name but a few. Since then, plastic bags, films and containers have revolutionised packaging and food supply chains, extending shelf lives and reducing the amount of food that’s wasted before it comes to market. The qualities that make plastics such ideal materials in the industrial process, lightness, cheapness and efficiency, are the same qualities that make them so hard to recycle. Even if collecting plastic rubbish was economical or environmentally sound, which it isn’t, the fact that manufacturers combine several polymers into the same product makes reprocessing impossible. And the only other option, incineration, produces carbon dioxide.

In 2010, the ‘Plastiki,’ a 60ft catamaran made out of plastic bottles, arrived at Christmas Island having sailed across the Pacific in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to the clutter in the middle of our oceans. How many people knew about that boat I wonder?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Give me a D, give me a W.

Nicola Morgan recently posted a couple of times on the subject of Delusional Wannabees, known as DWs, and I realised I'm certainly one of 'em.

Although in my case I mean Disillusioned Writer as well.

I've been at it now, off and on, for a number of years and I've accumulated a couple of novels, a couple of novellas, a dozen or so longer short stories, a few short stories, and half an autobiography.  From the time I started until now I've worked on everything in turn as and when I could to try and polish them into readable stories.  All along I've thought they're not good enough yet to try and get them published, and I still think that, and now I realise that unless I DIY them, they never will get published.  I've tried to make them read as smoothly as possible and I'm pretty sure I've done that OK, but .....

The few oddbods who have read anything have always said, with no exceptions, that they liked them, and "You know, you should get this published."  They of course have been non expert ordinary readers, and they don't realise just what they're saying, but the thought occurred to me that there is a big difference between readers and experts.

I'm sure most readers don't mind the odd cliché, adverb, repetition, long sentence and so on, they just read the story, but if I sent anything off it would be returned pretty sharpish because I'm positive I haven't found them all when polishing.  I read a comment on another blog somewhere about a guy who read a heavily self promoted self published book and thought it was absolute crap, chock full of all the usual errors, only to then discover that Harper Collins had taken it up!  Get experts to read J.K.Rowling or Dan Brown and they'll tell you about all the boo-boos and no-nos and yet look what happened to them.

In thinking about my stuff I've also realised that, no matter how polished I make them, they're not good enough stories.  Ordinary people in unusual circumstances just about covers most of them, and they're all plot driven, and these days that's not fashionable, so do I keep on keeping on or what?  Do I try and make the characters more memorable, try to bring in a romantic sub plot, stick in as many witticisms as I can think of, scatter similes left right and centre, or do I just give it all up as a bad job and spend my time reading instead.

By the way, what's on the telly tonight, anything worth watching?

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The long, long trail a-winding ........

Of course we all know, or should do, just how difficult it is to get our babies into print.  There's a dearth, (or should that be death?), of published material these days, and for those of us not yet published it seems an almost impossible task.

I was just reading about a group of writers who have been advised that their work will almost certainly never get into print.  They are a team of 80 lexicographers who have been working on the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for the last twenty one years, yes, twenty one, and have so far completed 28% of it!  How's that for dedication?  I half joked to my wife that they'll proabably have to chip in a few quid each and self publish.

And then I thought, hang on, that's not a bad idea.  Could not a group of successful but frustrated published authors get together and buy a small but well established traditional publishing house, act as their own readers and editors, and publish their books in the normal way, complete with distribution deals, Amazon contracts, and so on?  Or possibly establish a new company to do the same thing?  Many top photographers have done that very successfully by forming their own agency, and what about tennis players and golfers who collectively own their money making circuits?  The American film company United Artists did it successfully when a group of top actors got together, so why not authors?

It could even be done by none published writers like myself getting together to help and advise each other to self publish a selection of our own work.  I'm sure better results could be obtained than by each of us doing it solo.  A combined effort at polishing the writing first, and then promoting each others books as a group would surely result in a lot of satisfaction, if not a lot of profit!

This new blog of mine doesn't appear to have any readers yet, but I would love some comments on these thoughts if anyone is out there.  Helloooooooo ......

Sunday, 29 August 2010


I once set myself the task of writing one story in each of as many different genres as I could think of.  I tried a ghost story, a love story, a cowboy story and so on, but after a while I realised, no matter what I set out to write, they almost all came out with a slight supernatural edge to them; the sort of thing you could read either way.  Was it a ghost, or had the sister not really died in the first place?  Was he really a gorilla, or did he just think he was.  Was he really a reincarnated sea captain or was it just the old fashioned way he spoke?  And so on.  Any normal reader would immediately see the supernatural reference, but it was quite possible to miss it and read them as normal stories.

I remember the joke that got Max Miller banned from the BBC.  He always told jokes that he said were just normal anecdotes and it was the dirty minded people in the audience who saw them the other way.  Nonsense of course, but that was his trade mark.  The joke I remember was this .....

"The other day I was walking across a long and very narrow footbridge when I met a young lady coming the other way.  I didn't know whether to toss myself off or block her passage."

Cringe making of course, but if you told that to a six or seven year old they would innocently ask what happened.  Did she turn round and go back, or did he?  Did they squeeze past each other?  Did he really throw himself off then?  It's only us dirty minded adults who see it the other way.

That set me thinking about the more difficult type of story where the writer's intention is harder to fathom.  How many readers would miss the point?  Or are they right and that wasn't the writer's intention at all?  It makes you realise how careful you have to be.  My stories are simple, open tales where my intention is clear and obvious.

At least I think they are.

Oh oh!


Thursday, 26 August 2010

Posted when?!?!?

As I say, I'm new on here, but my first couple of posts have been shown as posted eight hours ago.  I presume this is American time, but it's clear from my profile I'm English.  Does everyone have this?

Keep At It, But .....

I remember reading once about a new factory manager who changed the working hours.  From eight to five with lunch from twelve to one, he brought in a ten minute break in each hour; i.e., work for fifty minutes, then ten minutes off for a smoke, cup of tea or just a chat.  The Directors were of course dubious, but the amazing thing was that production actually went up.

I think there's a lesson there for some of us.  Not an excuse to procrastinate, but when we're hunched over the keyboard caress those keys for an hour, or two at the most, and then get up for a short break.  I'm sure in the long run it will pay off.

Through a change in life style I find myself able to write as much as I want.  Unless I fight it I could sit here all bloody day; irritated by any interruptions; and at the end of the day creaking away from the desk, hunched over, legs and back aching, and another day older.  Unless I've succumbed to the lure of the Internet, obviously a lot of words completed, but how good are they?

Golfers and snooker players talk about being in the zone, almost self hypnotised, not really thinking about what they're doing, and that's when they produce their best performances.  I've experienced this feeling sometimes, (but nowhere near often enough!), and probably then it may be better to keep at it; to hell with a break, just press on regardless.

In the absence of the zone though I make myself get up and walk about a bit.  It stops the aches and pains, gives me a chance to clear my mind of that blocking phrase or sentence, see what the weather's doing, make a cup of coffee, or whatever.  Then back at it refreshed.

That's the theory anyway, or am I just procrastinating?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

New on here.

As you can tell from that title, this is my first posting.

From time to time I'm interested in different things and I'll be posting about some of them as we go along.  Until I get used to being here you'll have to excuse me if I drop any clangers.

Cheers for now.