Before you all get well and truly swept up in Christmas and New Year madness, I'd like to get in now and send out a HAPPY FESTIVE SEASON message! I hope it turns out to be exactly as you want it to be. Spare a thought for me as I work some night shifts in the days before Christmas! Sniff sniff. (Thanks to my mum, by the way, for the cool flashing Christmas pictures in this post, which are her own creations!)
What I was wondering though, as I do my best to forget the fact that yet another year is coming to a close, was how many writers will be sticking to their writing regime over this period? Who will be locking themselves away in their writing cages, despite the jingle of bells around them? Is it healthy to keep up the daily word count, no matter what? Should we insist on giving ourselves a break during this festive time? I'm not talking about blog writing, which some people no doubt have to suspend as they'll be away from computers, etc. I also know that it's sometimes just too busy a time for a writer to get any intelligent phrases down!
What also comes to mind at this time of the year is the reminder that more months have gone by and I'm still waiting, waiting, waiting for responses. Forget the festive wine, I want a good long whine instead. I want a good grizzle. I want to throw all of my dummies out of the cot! The little clock is ticking by and all of the outfits that consider manuscripts now seem to want to be given three-month windows before giving responses. Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright.
The other thing, as January the 1st approaches, is what to come up with as a feasible New Year's resolution. Write more? Start sleeping with publishing house people? Publish myself? Give the whole "want to get published" thing up so I can have an anxiety free life? Change genres and start writing crime or sci-fi novels? Truth is, I will probably just maintain the status quo. A sucker for punishment?
On one feasible level, I've decided to reduce the time I spend sitting down in front of a screen. My day job involves a lot of this and it's becoming all too common at home as well. I am going to try to plan my "in front of screen" time. I am also doing daily exercise now. I am walking every morning before breakfast, for 45 minutes - that's when I'm not doing a dreadful 0730 start at work! I am also doing 20 push-ups after the walk. Superman in three months? Just call me Clark.
Yes, I have been spending far too much time slouching down in front of all you lot, forgetting to keep all of my bits and pieces moving. Don't get me wrong though, I do like connecting with you! It's not about cutting back on the blog or the writing, it's about working out a more productive and efficient schedule. Well, that's the resolution; we'll see how it all goes in January.
Also, is it true that people read a "festive season book"? Do people actually go out and choose a book that is especially appropriate for this time of year? I have never done this. My reading choices go unchanged. I'm currently reading The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It has nothing to do with Christmas or this festive season. All the newspapers are full of advice about what we should read at this time, yet - and remember that there are not many who actually have extended holidays right now - I really can't believe that people rush out and buy books for reading beside the holly and punch. Of course, there are books for presents, but they wouldn't necessarily have the festive theme, would they?
Well, that's my festive wondering out of the way. Now, where's the wine? I need to turn my attention to greater thoughts about how much I'm going to enjoy my Christmas dinner (it's hard being a vegetarian in France during these times, by the way, but I have managed to find good alternatives). I also need to think about how I'm going to celebrate on New Year's eve.
Oh, and before I forget, Jessica Schneider has an interesting pre-Christmas review of what sounds like a great movie, one that I really must get round to watching. Could this be good for any festive season cynics?
Dave Hill liked the blue ones, but politely turned down my offer for the red and white ones (See comments on this post). Others, however, have been screaming out for them, so here they are! The Balls! Why not post them on your blog or website, just as Dave did, as a way of marking the end of the year in blogland? (To maintain the quality, save the pics to your computer once you've clicked on them to make them bigger). Post the balls and spread the word! Let's make this a huge blogland project for Christmas and the New Year! For your caption - I snapped these at Lyon's Festival of Lights, Dec 9, 2006.
I have never really been one for fantasy, supernatural or science fiction novels, even as a child; I've always preferred going for real life drama, something that I can relate to. That is why I was a little hesitant when I began Coven of One by Kate Bousfield (aka Inner Minx in the blogosphere). A story about a witch? A story about spells? A story with words like scrying, athame, Akashic, Samhain, and grimoire? I worried that it would take more than a spell for me to fall for this kind of book.
Then along came Dorcas Fleming!
I instantly fell in love with this character, relieved to find that she was a "down to earth" protagonist in a world that was very easy to relate to: the witch in this story is not often on a broomstick and not often wearing a pointed hat, and the book is not saturated with hocus-pocus. This is a story about a strong, likeable woman who just happens to be a witch. The world created by the author is totally accessible.
What made this tale so adorable for me were the universal themes that a reader is looking for when they want an escape: it's a love story (the witch even has sex!); it's a story about good and evil; it's also about the battle to be accepted, and the struggle to belong somewhere and find a raison d'être.
This is a fun and easy read that runs to 247 pages. The author, in my opinion, hasn't made the mistake of delving too deeply into witchcraft and black magic, the detail of which might have turned out to be too heavy. I believe the balance is just right, with very little getting in the way of what in essence is a feel-good story about Dorcas Fleming and her mission to save a small, remote town from a deadly curse. There is humour too, which gives Dorcas an air of mischief. The talking with cats is fantastic!
It has to be said though that the editing was disconcerting in parts, with commas missing before the closing speech mark at the end of much of the dialogue. Example: 'I miss her' he said. Some full stops were also AWOL. I wondered if this was deliberate, except that the commas were in place in other sections. Was it a problem at the printers? This is a minor grumble, however, as it didn't distract me from enjoying the book.
I look forward to the next adventure of Dorcas Fleming. I also look forward to recommending it to people who have always been suckers for fairies, gremlins and witches - my mother included. People like me will also love it. I have the sneaky feeling that this character is going to work her magic far and wide!
I've finally got my best images of NY sorted out! I've put them together with one of my original piano compositions, an improvisation on a standard jazz, bass riff.
Make sure your volume is turned up, click the play button (sometimes twice) and then sit back and enjoy!
Please feel free to send a link for this video to your family and friends. You can also embed this video on your own blogs by getting the code off the YouTube page, or you can email me - see contacts - and I will email you the code with an explanation on how to do it.
Something I read a few days ago has really got me thinking - and got my blood boiling - and I can't help but think that we may have been denied a wonderful novel. Come to think of it, we may have been/are being denied many good novels for what I consider to be very silly reasons.
Did anyone else read a piece on the book blog of the Guardian website titled Le Diable is in the detail ? Maxim Jakubowski - former publisher, author, reviewer of crime fiction - wrote about sloppy attention to detail in fiction. He was actually talking about the latest Hannibal novel, complaining that Thomas Harris often gets the French and setting wrong. (The devil in the detail, when we're talking about Hannibal? Lovely.) But he then goes on to reveal something that I find extraordinary:
"Fifteen years or so ago, when I was still an acquiring editor in publishing, I was offered a very promising manuscript, a first thriller by a Canadian author. I liked the book and felt the author had much talent. But a key sequence of the book was a frantic car chase in which the protagonist was chased along the Boulevard Sebastopol in Paris, from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine. Only one small problem: the Boulevard Sebastopol is one way and traffic runs in the opposite direction. It just spoiled the book for me."
Come again? Did this former acquiring editor just say he turned down a book because the traffic wasn't flowing in the right direction? He liked it, but the chase scene spoiled it for him? I really hope this wasn't the only reason he turned down the book - if that is indeed what happened. It would've been very easy to choose another street, wouldn't it? If he really liked this book and thought there was talent, why couldn't he just ask the writer to change the offending detail? Are there really editors out there who are just as hard? And if there are, how many great books are we being denied just because a writer has not verified all of what could be considered as unimportant detail?
I also really hate to point out to Mr Jakubowski that he himself has failed to take his own advice about paying attention to detail. The name of the Paris road he refers to is actually Boulevard de Sébastopol, with a very important "de" between the two words and an accent on the "e". These are only small details in the wider scheme of things, yes, but they become big elephants in the room when they pop up in a piece by a former acquiring editor who's complaining about writers not paying enough attention to detail! It's true that Boulevard de Sébastopol is shortened to Boulevard Sébastopol on at least one sign in Paris - I used to live on this road, by the way - but the official name, if we're worrying about the fact that the devil is in the detail, is with the "de". Just because a council roading department shortens the name so it can fit on a sign does not mean the name of the road has changed. Surely the accent should also be respected, even in English.
Now, I only point out the missing "de" and the accent because it's a good example of how difficult all of this can become. Can you imagine what life would be like for a writer if they had to check every little thing out, no matter how minor or relevant to the story? You can pay good money to go to Paris and stand under the sign that reads "Boulevard Sébastopol" and think you've got it right, when in fact you need to go down to the city council and actually check that it hasn't been shortened for practical reasons by the man who prints the signs. You then need to check with the government printing office to double-check that the city council has got the correct name, with the correct accent, because there are acquiring editors who may just have a bee in their bonnet about devils and detail! To prove that I have a heart, can I just say that if the blog entry Le diable is in the detail had in fact been a book proposal from Mr Jakubowski, I wouldn't have worried about the missing "de" or accent. I would have offered him a contract.
There is, of course, the whole thing about artistic licence. I personally believe there has to be a certain amount of freedom to let the imagination reach its full potential. I have read many books that seem to be ruined by the author's militant and obsessive approach to detail. I don't want to read encyclopaedia-style novels. I don't want to read something where it's obvious the author has been totally restrained by the details of something. I think even some of our more famous novelists tend to do it; Ian McEwan springs to mind with his recent book Saturday.
The book I'm working on at the moment is set in Dublin. Some of the opening scenes take place in D'Olier Street. I have taken the liberty of booking my protagonist into a little hotel, which doesn't actually exist in reality. It suits my story. I certainly don't expect that an acquiring editor like Mr Jakubowski is going to reject the novel because he happens to know that D'Olier Street is void of any cute little hotels. Should I be reconsidering? Have I totally missed the boat here?
Oh, by the way, the devil at the beginning of this post is an original photograph. It's part of the glorious door that graces the entrance to my building here in the centre of Lyon. Don't forget to click on the photographs to make them bigger!
As I wasn't able to get over to London to get all energised with good vibes at the blogmoot organised by Skint, Debi and Minx, I had to find some other trick. Luckily, Lyon has been hosting its annual Fête des Lumières over the past four days. This has become famous, attracting people from afar. Historic buildings and churches are lit up in spectacular fashion!
The light shows that were projected on the façades of two churches in the city were absolutely amazing, but because the images were moving it was impossible to capture them on camera. These other shots give you a general taste of what we saw though.
The festival of lights takes place every year, with its roots in religion. On the first day of the festival residents put little candles in their windows, traditionally to give thanks to the virgin Mary. Our flat doesn't have a view out onto the street, so we don't tend to put up any candles. We overlook an internal courtyard, the historic site of Lyon's first ever hospital.
I find this festival is perfect to get people into the festive mood, just weeks away from Xmas. The roads are closed off to traffic, which gives the city a wonderful ambience of freedom and good humour. You go home feeling absolutely psyched up!
Now, it's true that I would've had a much better time at the London blogmoot. I would've seen light on a different level, the luminosity that only our favourite blogs can provide. But when it came to trying to be satisfied with the next best thing, this festival kept me smiling. Also, sometimes it's good to get out into the world, away from the computer and all of those letters!
(Click on this beauty to see a bigger size)
This is the latest in my series of lions from Lyon. It's hard to believe that I'm up to number 24! This has been close to my heart and soon it will be over - I reckon we'll probably get to about 30!
Don't forget to look back over previous posts to see the lions that have already made an appearance. All of my posts are accessible on this same page. You don't need to go digging through the archives, just scroll down and keep going! (For those who don't know about the lions, they featured in an expo in Lyon a few years back, and I happily went around and caught them all on camera).
I've often wondered about this whole thing of having regular series or features on blogs. Do they work? Do people like to come back to see familiar "columns" and attractions? What will I have to replace the lions once they're gone? I am going to have a think and see what I can come up with. I could just post regular shots of Lyon, which is a beautiful city, and one that tourists don't always come to.
I want to resurrect some other regular features I started a while back. One was a literary quiz, with clues given about famous authors. The other was "A Shameless Titbit", which will now be dedicated to strange anecdotes of things that I have experienced or am experiencing. I will try to find peculiar things that spark your emotions. Of course there will always be the odd short story and poem. And music and video will now be a regular feature. Coming soon is a video of memories from my recent trip to New York, with some original piano music to boot.
Re the lions though, don't forget that I will be having a contest to find out which is the best of those presented on this blog. I am going to create a video parade, with all the lions making an appearance to some fitting music - would there be a copyright issue if I played my own version of "The lion sleeps tonight" on the piano? Is it traditional or will it be covered by copyright? I feel a google coming on! But if anyone knows about these things, do let me know.
Anyway, with or without that music, the lions will be all brought together and then you will be asked to vote for your favourite three. So, start having a look back through them now. Try to see which ones you will vote for. In the meantime, enjoy beauty number 24!
Do we really want to meet the flesh behind the blogs we love? Do we really want to put our real selves out there? Have you met your blogging fraternity in person? Were you happy or disappointed when you met your very own version of MadHenGoesBananas? Are an increasing number of blogs choosing not to be anonymous? Or will it remain the trend to stay, as I am, a shadow in cyberspace?
I ask all of these questions as I draw your attention to two 'in-the-flesh' blogging events taking place in London this Saturday. Are we in the middle of some kind of transformation in blogland? The British Blog Directory/Britblog has announced a Christmas Blogmeet . But that's not all! There's also another literary Blogmoot taking place in London on the same day - married up with the London launch of Kate Bousfield's book A Coven of One (Kate is also known as the inimitable Inner Minx).
This is all wonderful news, which gives you the sense that blogs are branching out, organising their own events, giving people the chance to hook up, share ideas and promote blogging solidarity. These events could become huge, with a new era of the information age developing before our eyes.
The problem with this - and I'm not in any way wanting to pour cold water on these events, as I think they are great initiatives - is that it is making anonymous bloggers reassess why their sites maintain their black cloaks. It makes us ask ourselves whether we should be ready to go and let people match our faces up with our blogs. For me, this is a good question to be asking right now. I've already been busted a few times: by an old friend, a workmate, a fellow blogger. So far though, I've kept myself shameless and nameless. I have been weighing up the pros and the cons for months. I have almost let loose with my real identity on several occasions, usually late at night when I'm feeling rash, but then something always holds me back. Of course, I have to remember that a blog could be a complication when it comes to my main job in journalism. Or maybe it wouldn't pose a problem. I haven't worked that one out yet.
(It's the mask here that makes my head look bigger than it is, by the way! I love the message though: anonymous freedom!)
What I do know is that one of the reasons why I wanted to blog was to get my creative writing out there - and yes, it is very different to news writing and journalism! (It's amazing how many people think that a journalist should automatically be good at creative writing. We are taught from day one to boil everything down. Prune. Trim. Simplify. Unless we're writing features, daily news is all fact and no "frills".) However, at the end of the day, if I ever manage to get my first or second book published, I would want to get my name out there, and it would make sense to make my blog public, to shed the mysterious black cloak. So, why not do that now? Why not already start building up a profile?
I think many writers who are blogging are probably facing exactly the same questions. Many will happily go along to the events like those being organised in London this weekend, and they will benefit massively from the exposure to others who are like-minded. There are many more, however, who will prefer to keep their names secret, who will prefer to take things nice and slowly, until the day when they feel they are absolutely ready to come out into the bloglight.
I don't want to be crass and offend the taste of ordinary folk. Or maybe I do? This has always been a difficult point for me when considering the novel I want to write. What do we do when the characters need to get close? I mean, sweaty close? Some people don't make it easy for us.
The Literary Review has just announced this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The hapless winner - though they normally bask in the limelight and their profile increases markedly - is Iain Hollingshead, for a passage from his book Twenty Something. Here's the offending bit, which the judges are supposed to have found unnecessary and cringe-evoking, if that's a proper term:
She's wearing a short, floaty skirt that's more suited to July than February. She leans forward to peck me on the cheek, which feels weird, as she's never kissed me on the cheek before. We'd kissed properly the first time we met. And that was over three years ago.
But the peck on the cheek turns into a quick peck on the lips. She hugs me tight. I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly, She slides one of her slender legs in between mine. Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair. She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I'm inside her, and everything is pure white as we're lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.
Now, I agree that sex in a novel just for the sake of having a bit of sex in a novel leaves me cold. And how many people can write good love-making scenes? And how graphic should they be? How honest? Do we care? Are we turning readers off? Should we even be posing the question, as encouraged by The Literary Review?
I have a sex scene in the novel I am trying to sell, but I argue that it is necessary to show a crucial turning point: my protagonist has been grappling with a kind of impotence and it's near the end of the book that this is confronted "head on". I have to admit that I found it difficult trying to get the right balance, to neither go overboard nor shy away from the task at hand. I also wondered about what the reaction of the reader would be, let alone think about the reaction of those respectable people who know me and think that I am such a "nice young man".
I would be interested in getting your reactions to this short scene. I will be happy to accept next year's Bad Sex in Fiction award, because it will mean that my book is on the shelves! So, sit yourself down and dim the lights. Here it is:
He didn’t know how it happened. One minute they were coy and reclining, quite a way from each other, him going through the details of the past few days, and the next thing he was dragging his firm lips across her neck, pulling her hands down away from her fringe. He couldn’t tell who started it. His heart raced. His legs ached. She was composed and still, seeming to wait for his movements and initiatives. The
connection sent small charges into his skin.
‘You smell good,’ he said. ‘You smell so good.’ He tenderly bit her wrists and then held them up to the light, as though he needed to verify that it really was her, the raising up of a glittering, coveted prize. Her fingers seemed long and delicate like chopsticks. The soft hair on her arms lit up like sparkle dust. She stayed loose and showed no resistance, seeming to leave everything up to him.
She pushed down the top of her jeans, letting her head tumble back. A small metal ball in her bellybutton suddenly appeared like a beacon of light. He went down onto his knees and took it between his teeth; he never imagined a piercing would ever excite him. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a condom wrapped in a black wrapper, which she hastily tore open. He was ready. It must’ve been the first
time in 18 months that he’d actually gone hard when consumed by the promise of sex. Then he was petrified that his ruminations would cause him to lose his nerve. His trousers fell easily, the button already undone after his massage with Didier. With style, he unrolled the condom effortlessly onto his glory and then eased Sandy down onto the sofa, slipping a cushion beneath her head.
‘I want you to be gentle,’ she whispered. ‘I want something loving.’
He nodded and teased off her top, and noticed that she smelt of peaches. She raised her head and kissed him on the lips, which surprised him. She whispered something, but it was broken up by the kisses. She breathed into his mouth and seemed to fill him with something powerful. When he wrenched himself up on top of her he was pleased to feel that he was still hard, his glory pushing into her inner thigh. He placed her right arm up behind her head and buried his nose in her armpit – that was something he’d loved doing in his early days with Joyce. She giggled and told him to stop. She was thin across her stomach and around her thighs, yet her thick coating of skin and her ample breasts were enough for him to hold onto and move under his palms. He never liked it when the skin was too taut and a woman didn’t move with him. He loved to explore something of substance.
He was inside her, before he even had time to reflect on whether he was ready to make the connection. The way they fell into each other seemed so right, as if there were no other position they could’ve taken up. His euphoria was increased when she moved beneath him, flexing the muscles around her groin. Her hands made delicate journeys across the divide of his back, spreading the perspiration around like massage oil. She writhed faster beneath him, her mouth wide and surrendered. She fully stretched, making the exposed cords and muscles in her neck seem like the base of a giant kauri tree, looking splendid under the light of the moon. He fell
backwards and saw whiteness, pure and plain whiteness, a warm glow that seemed to completely energise him.
They lay still for five minutes without talking, their arms and legs entwined, perspiration running like streams across their bodies, a soft after-sex smell hanging over them. He could feel a mosquito biting him on his side, but he made no
effort to remove it. He’d been rendered far too docile to react to anything. He coasted off into a light sleep and enjoyed the sensation of being lifted up high into the air. He’d been liberated from something, brought out of a cold cave
and into the warm light of day.
Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.
You may or may not be up to speed on the controversy bubbling in the blogosphere about the attack on bloggers who dare to rise above their station and write book reviews. A summary of the debate so far can be found at Skint Writer.
Rachel Cooke's piece in The Observer - I don't know if she actually works for them or just sells her wares to them from time to time - really raised the temperature, and her motive for producing the piece was evident in her rambling opening paragraph:
"There are few things more enjoyable than watching bookish types acting catty, so it is with some glee that I have been following the row that has broken out between the critic John Sutherland, the novelist and uber-blogger Susan Hill, and an as yet unnamed literary editor of a national newspaper."
With a puerile opener like that, I wonder how was it possible that anyone expected an intelligent, measured or rational piece? Blimey! Talk about good writing and leaving it up to the professionals! This woman must be desperate for things to write about, to ensure that she is kept on that list of those writers receiving money for their "good" writing. By the way, Frank at Books, Inq is not included as a target for this post; he has stated his sound position very clearly!
I don't mean to be catty, honest! It's amazing how reading articles like that will put you in the mood for a cat fight though. And it's not even due to my "putrid bitterness" caused by "a very deep sense of exclusion", which she says bloggers suffer from. It just so happens that I'm a working journalist AND a blogger, paid handsomely for my words as well! What category, therefore, am I in, Ms Cooke?
It seems Rachel Cooke will always be the source of a raised eyebrow in my household, however. I remember back in 2004 reading one of her more "famous" articles. She interviewed the family of a missing woman in Texas in the US. Why? What was the news value for a UK audience? Oh, that's simple: the woman had the same name. Reporter Rachel in the UK says she searched for her own name on Google. It turned out another Rachel Cooke, in the US, was missing, presumed murdered. Our Rachel was so taken aback - never mind the news judgement - that she flew to Texas a few weeks later to report on her namesake. Journalists are still scratching their heads about this one. I say what a novel way to earn some more of that "good writer's" cash that she goes on about. Of course, no disrespect to the Texas family at the centre of that article; what's in question here is the UK reporter's motive for covering it.
I digress, however, which illustrates the power of cattiness! I'm sorry and promise to be good for now on! Purrrrr Purrrr. Let me give the last word on this to Norm, just as Susan Hill did. A sensible, intelligent piece on a blog. Fancy that!
Because what I really wanted to post were the details of a recent conversation I had with a friend who reviews books for a reputable publication. I won't name her, because she relies on this job to pay her rent. It's not Ms Cooke, and I'm not referring to The Observer. My friend has given me permission to quote her though, finding all this hoo-ha a "bit of a laugh".
- She says she was wined and dined last month by the publishers of four different publishing houses, the bills going through the ceiling. She says "of course I later wrote favourable reviews for them" because there are more restaurants "I'm keen to get a foot in".
- Her editor changes her reviews regularly, making them better or worse, depending on what partnerships, promotions or freebies are on offer. It also depends if the parent companies - reviewer's publication and book publisher - are linked.
- She has been told to write "favourable" reviews when the publication is keen to score an exclusive interview with a famous author. Bad review, no interview, ever!
- Publishers who don't advertise in said publication don't get their books reviewed.
- Bad reviews of books could mean publisher's adverts being pulled, or promotional-partnership events being cancelled, so they are all vetted by editor, who is vetted by corporate bosses.
- Sometimes a review will be favourable or bad depending on what a rival publication has written.
- She has had to write seven favourable reviews this year for authors with close connections to the publication.
My friend is also happy to be quoted as boasting the following - with hearty laughs: she is 26; never studied literature; never written a book; only ever reads the first 10 pages of a book, then dips in and out until she has enough to write her review; she admits she doesn't know "a lot" about anything, let alone books, as Rachel Cooke argues; her reviews appear under a pseudonym in the publication, because she is often embarrassed about what she writes; she swears that this is not an isolated case.
So, there you are. That's why I don't treat the entire mainstream reviewing machine as a sacred cow. Nor would I ever treat all blog reviews as a sacred cow. I will go forward with my eyes open and judge things as I find them. Long live diversity and free thought! And I will try not to be catty, as long as I'm not forced into it!
Yes, this is me as a toddler, for those who don't like the anonymous element of nameless blogs. I thought it might be nice to give Shameless some kind of face. I have changed a lot though, rest assured. This is proof that I once had hair (I have a "number one" now) and that I was fair-haired (I only remember having dark hair).
How many of you ever take the time to look at your childhood photos? Is it such a shameless thing to dwell on them, or even make them public like this? I like to remind myself of that time when anything was possible, when there were less boundaries, conditioning and baggage. It can still be like this, if we can just clear our minds and try to regain our innocence! I like to remind myself about the existence of that little child within, who is always welcome company in this world of having to be a man. Play and laugh! Play and laugh!
So, I hereby call on my fellow bloggers to share with us at least one photo of themselves as a child. Take yourself back to a good time (I know childhoods are not always easy). Make a new start. Get back in touch with your inner child. You'll be amazed what it can do for your writing. You'll be amazed what it can do for your general state of mind. Who will take up this challenge? Or will my baby face be the only one shining out from the blogosphere?
Let yourself go ga ga!
This is not a pleasant story, but I want to share it with you to illustrate how this whole blog thing can end up meaning much more to us than perhaps we imagine.
About 18 months ago, before I launched my own blog, I was a regular visitor to a specialist blog - in fact, more of a website in the form of a blog - on a subject I'd taken an interest in. I visited about three or four times a week, becoming strangely addicted, connecting with the humour and the "personality" of the author. It became cosy. I was happy to follow the threads and the insight into the author and the subject she was shedding light on. I was impressed by the research this person was undertaking, saving the rest of us from doing some horrible, difficult digging. I thought it was incredible that this person could devote so much of her time to collating such valuable information. I was attached to someone I'd never met.
Six months later something strange happened: the blog seemed to freeze. It didn't change, except for the list of comments on the last post. There were no more updates. Regular readers like me kept returning, but kept finding the same post. I left a comment to ask "where are you?" and to enquire whether the author had managed to find the answer to a question I had asked. Two weeks passed. The comments dropped off. I sent an email to the address in the contacts. There was no reply. I didn't have any other contact information, not even a name, just a login name that began with numbers.
Another month went by and I genuinely became worried about the author. I wondered what had happened. What was going on? If she'd decided to give up the blog, surely she would've said so. How can someone write a post every day for years and then suddenly abandon everything with no explanation. There was no way of getting any answers.
Two more months went by and I popped in to the site out of curiosity, expecting to see the same tired post from two months earlier. I was absolutely shocked to read a new post, not written by the author but by her 15-year-old daughter. It said:
"I am sorry to announce here that XXXXXXX, my mum, has passed away. Sorry I could not let you know earlier, but I didn't even realise she had this web. I am very sad to find this out about her and I am reading everything now, right back to 2002!? I found mum's log and password in her diary that was secret, and not even her closest friends have known about this. Sorry to have to tell you this bad news. We had a lovely funeral in XXXXXXX but I wish we might have talked about this web. What hurts me as well is that many people had sent my mum some awful emails about XXXXXXX and the amazing work she was doing. You know who you are. I hope you are happy. Thank you to everyone else who made my mum happy in some terrible period in her life."
I think I almost cried, putting myself in the shoes of this poor teenager, discovering the blog that her mother had laboured over and loved. She was right to say how sad it was that her family and friends didn't see the passion she had for her blog. The website, in Canada, has since been taken down. It still makes me sad to think about that mother and daughter. I also would've liked to have known more about her and her final days. It's one of life's cruel lessons.
I think I am going to make a point of noting down my login and password somewhere obvious, so my partner has the chance to explain things should I ever be unable to continue adding posts to my blog. I am also glad to say that I do rave about my blog at home! "Look at what I've just put up," I say. "And look at those lovely reactions from all of those lovely people."
37 ironed envelopes, sealed with a spray of lavender, the names luscious and curvy, the satin hue of Bombay; to Mrs Xinhua, Norris and his frisky labrador, the girl who works in the library, the Mexican potter who no one sees on the top floor, the young lad who plays a maniacal trumpet way after 10 o'clock; all sailing up and down the bannisters in eternal giddiness, limbless dances in the space that buffers them from the world; only four couples, the rest without commitment, assuming no one's managed 100 percent discretion, fooling the spies behind silent cracks in old doorways.
pleasantly cut exotic flowers, punch and spirits to suit all religions, in front of photos of well-meaning but distant relatives; samosas and Turkish delight made to look more plentiful, fanned out across the crystal platters; drinks at number 17, she'd written, from 5:30 until late; a chance to humanise the building, get to know who might be around when someone else's world stops turning, forge a bond for when the heat wave comes, when the lights fail, if bombs ever start falling, God forbid, or if a heart suddenly decides it's had enough of its reliable, regular rhythm.
no replies in person, nor is a note left in her box, although there are more hellos and goodbyes on the stairs, an indication that something heavy may've shifted; already squeezed into her Christmas dress, bought in better times in Paris, waiting on the piano stool, divorced from its lover; sitting by the front door, practising the tone and assembly of her greetings, remembering to include a few words from other tongues for global reach, the names and peculiars of the least obvious, some delightful titbits from her single and married years to tease out plenty of smiles.
the slayer of time creeps around the clockface though, leaving 5:30 back in the distance, making the food look wasted and sad, her dress exagerated and loud, betrayed by the lavender, the cleverness of her pen; not even a scratch on the door, nor a guilty hesitation on the landing, just urgent descents, feet content to be escaping elsewhere, selfish lives not wanting to be bothered by the eccentric notions of her at number 17; another gin flushes memories through her veins, bitter about those around her, for deciding to be in the race but not really a part of it.
and then, just below, the splutters of a trumpet, the growl of the excited dog, the cluttered harmony of voices, meeting, exploring; two flights navigated in a hurry, stopping in front of the merry din, realising with a squeal that 17 must've been mistaken for 11; the owner probably just went with the flow, taken by the unexpected good intentions of his neighbours; her knocking is confident, throat cleared, eyes wiped, heart strenghtened, the pleasure of knowing she has an amusing tale to share with her community, who just may, this new night, become something very important.
© Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.
Sometimes when I read a book that's not in my preferred genre - I find this is a good exercise, by the way, to keep across all types of writing styles - I have to make an effort to put aside old habits. I try to keep an open mind and enjoy what's in front of me, fighting off the demands and expectations that I might have when reading other genres. There's no point in going to a heavy metal concert, expecting to hear distinct classical forms.
I had this in mind when reading Dark Rain by Conor Corderoy, one of the first batch of six novels that came out of the new imprint Macmillan New Writing. The books seem to cover all different genres of writing: experimental; two types of thrillers (intelligent action and psychological); a contemporary family drama (kind of), a sweeping epic and a detective novel. Dark Rain was the detective novel.
For what it was, and bearing in mind the target audience, I think it hits the mark. It was the classic quick read: grisly murder, hard cop, lady in distress, non-PC language and stances, surreal violence and plenty of clichés. It was actually an entertaining read, which took no time at all to get through, and no punches were pulled.
The positive, for me, was the original setting. The story takes place in the future, with the earth soaked in constant rain, the rich living in domes with fake skies, the poor living out in tent cities. There were parallels with our current global situation. It didn't get too deep though, and the dialogue and narrative never betrayed the genre. I can see a film coming out of this book, which would be quite fun to see; everything was very easy to visualise.
Oh, and I won't bore those who have already read my previous comments about the lack of tight editing in some of these first MNW books, but I just wish there hadn't been two spellings for whisky (whiskey), for example, and that the main character's name hadn't gone from O'Neil to O'Neal at one point. There were other slips here and there, but I think my point's been made. There was still a lot of fun had though!
Click on image to enlarge!
Here he is, after waiting so patiently in the wings: the latest in my lion series.
My blog just wouldn't be the same without my lions. What will I do when the series runs out? I reckon I have about another 10 to showcase; after that I suppose I will have to find an idea for another series!
Don't forget to start going back over previous posts to see which ones are your favourites because I still plan to hold a contest to find the best Lion of Lyon.
Call me old fashioned. Call me fuddy-duddy. Call me an anti-advancist, if that were a correct term. But I really can't see the day when I settle for the likes of a Sony Reader to digest my new books.
I have no doubt that these devices are going to improve with time, and already the Sony Reader looks like a superb creation, which gives the sensation of really reading paper. I've browsed through all the advance publicity and I'm very impressed by the technology. It's not enough, however, and I fear it never will be.
Sony lists all the benefits: impressive paper-like display; lightweight; amazing battery life; memory for hundreds of books; browse, purchase and easily download.
What they can't address is the little-discussed subject of how real books seem to breathe for many people, how they seem to have personalities and accompany us through life.
I couldn't imagine my living room without one of the walls lined with books. They are not just things that I read and then forget. These books hold certain memories. I buy books when I visit places. I love it when they're signed. Books remind me of different times in my life. They have become furniture pieces as well, decor that makes me "happy in my skin", as the French would say. I really believe we can feel like we're being accompanied by books; book lovers feel better when they're surrounded by them. The bookcase is just as important as the sofa and the table.
I'm not sure that a Sony Reader or any other similar device is ever going to be able to fill that gap for me. It may be fine for those who aren't that attached to their books, who don't like to stroke and smell the covers and pages (I don't mind confessing to it) and who want something easy and convenient, to take with them on public transport, for example.
What's more, my bookcase is like a large painting, a multi-coloured mural, the tapestry of my life, which I'm adding to all the time. That must be some food for thought for the good folk at the likes of Sony. Sorry I can't offer any solutions. In signing off, I have a flash: I can see someone in the year 2086, looking back at this post in blogger's archives; he can't believe what he reads, and then he has a good old laugh as he injects his Sony Reader into his arm!
There's nothing like evolution. There's nothing like taking our blogs to new levels. If you thought this blog was just text and photos, think again!
I've had a bit of fun putting together a video of the best memories of my trip through Portugal over the summer. All you have to do is click the play button (sometimes twice). You can also increase the volume on the console. The music is one of my original piano compositions. What a bonus! Enjoy!
A similar video of New York is in the pipeline!
A friend of mine, Rory Mulholland, has launched a website to promote a book he's written about his time reporting in Iraq.
Camp Britney, Tikrit is not your run of the mill book on the Iraqi conflict. This is about a bunch of reporters who spent a month in Saddam's former palace after his capture, and the daily task they had of trying to justify their placement there. There are many funny moments and it's a real 'behind the scenes' look at how news agency stories get to us from war zones. There are also some great photos.
Rory is a dear friend who seems to be attracted to the action at the front line. I tell him he's mad to want to risk his life like this, but I suppose someone has to do it.
I always get nervous when I come across a book in which the story takes place over a single day; often it means the author will have stretched things out to fill up the pages, with lovely strolls down side paths, into dense gardens, around difficult to describe bushes, into the murky waters of a fountain we don't care about. You get my point.
This was the sensation I had when I started reading Ian McEwan's Saturday, which opens with a bedroom scene, the main character waking up, musing about his lot. Here's the opening line:
"Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet."
I instantly had memories of a writing class I once attended. "Don't ever ever ever begin your novel with the main character in bed waking up!" bellowed the tutor. "It's ugly and it's boring and it will turn the reader off!" I'm not sure if he was right, but it means that I now can't judge those kinds of opening lines objectively. Ugly and boring comes to mind, even if they are not the real feelings I have. Therefore, Saturday didn't start well for me.
I dreaded the thought that I was going to be taken through the day to day stuff of someone I wouldn't care about - a wealthy doctor in London - and it would be too focused on his internal angst, heavy questions about how on earth can we fit into a post-September the 11th world. A writer who is not sure of his ability would probably never attempt this. The result could be catastrophic. McEwan must be sure of his abilities, and this is where he has some success.
The novel slowly pulls you in, with a quiet, unsettling tone. The doctor's world is turned upside down after an encounter in the street with a road rage thug. There is suspense, anxiety, but not too much pondering. It is inevitable that McEwan has to take a few strolls down some peripheral gardens - a squash game that goes into too much detail and goes on for too many pages; the ins and outs of medical adventure inside the heads of several patients; the curiosities of jazz music that only a fan would appreciate. Don't forgt this is McEwan though, and so he manages to pull the plane up at the last minute, just when you think you are going to crash into the mountains and you will slam the book shut. This is what he is good at. He can keep pulling you along, even if you get restless with his playfulness, his desire to explore the language, show off his wordsmith skills. Anybody else would have failed after 50 pages.
The book only runs to 279 pages - thank goodness, because one day spread out over any more could become tedious - and there is a plot and a climax worth waiting for. You do close the book asking questions, feeling a prickle on your skin, understanding what it is that makes us all feel nervous about the fragility of our lives. It is a nice meditation on our post-twin towers uneasiness. For me, it is not one of McEwan's best, but it is definitely something worth reading.
'Step down, Sir!' said the girl for the third time, annoyed at my confused, pasty face, resentful that another customer was going to put salt on the wound of her already difficult 6th Avenue day. 'Step down, Sir!' she said again sharply, though managing to slip in the obligatory smile that so many people here seem to be trained in. Was I supposed to get down on my knees? Spread-eagle, ready to be frisked? Go down to a lower level and pay for the goods that I held guiltily in my hand? Was she agreeing with the newspapers in front of her, that Donald Rumsfeld should resign? A kind woman with a broad grin - and accent to match - appeared like an angel to act as translator, waving me up to the cashier. 'That means next customer, honey.' She laughed heartily, bemused by my unease, which she must have found so obviously foreign. No one warned me that I would need to learn the New York lingo before going there. After only a week, however, I was well and truly integrated into the club of mean operators who know the streets.
My literary blood was pumping when I arrived in the Big Apple, but unfortunately there was nothing to satisfy that longing. I did visit the famous Strand bookshop near Union Square - what a treat to get lost in between such cheap books - and I spotted the odd birthplace of great writers such as James Baldwin. However, my hopes of actually meeting in person some formidable writers at literary events evaporated, for one reason or another, and I had to be content with the usual touristy things that easily fill up a week. Seeing a show on Broadway - Chicago - and then dinner at the Union Square Café also made my birthday on Saturday memorable.
I put aside all the expectations, all the famous quotes, all the exercised anecdotes, to really try to see New York for what it was. My first impressions were mixed: there was a lot of grubbiness, with many surfaces crying out for a scrub and a coat of paint, and the traffic and sound pollution could be unbearable; on the other hand, however, instead of the rush and roar that I had imagined, there were relaxed, hearty people who had plenty of time to talk, help, laugh. At the end of the day, I bathed in a great sense of freedom - the streets felt safe, for example, and photography was permitted in museums. There is nothing but choice.
Being in New York felt like being at the centre of things, a chance to connect with a list of mankind's reference points, the things that symbolise so much about our civilisation. The attraction of this city, which makes it a place I want to explore to its core, is the atmosphere created by its superb mix of people, ideas, backgrounds, history. I have fallen in love, like millions of others before me.
All of these photos were taken by me. Don't forget you can click on them to enlarge them.
Look what was waiting for me in my letterbox when I got back from New York today!
The cover and quality of the printing looks great.
If anyone hasn't yet heard about the publication of this novel by fellow blogger Inner Minx, then you need to visit here.
I look forward to reading this, once I'm back on my feet and life is back to a normal pace.
It's great to see a new writer break through!
I wish you all the best with this, Skint and Minx.
It's halloween, and this year it means more to me than ever before! I'm in New York, and a big parade is due to creep past my hotel on 14th street on the night of the 31st! Thanks to Minx's poetry contest, I've got this little poem to get you into the mood. One of the many stories I remember reading about this festival was how spirits of those who will die over the coming year gather for a march through the streets. People are supposed to have left lanterns outside their homes to scare away the spirits, to make sure they didn't recruit any family members for the "flight" at summer's end.
the flight of the chosen
you're not out there, I've been looking,
seen the white faces, for miles and miles,
thanks to the lanterns, guarding the gates,
not on the list for this new year, I promise,
made doubly sure by my yellowy mixture
it's watery, without butter, nor sour cream,
tepid, lumpy, stains across the bowl's rim,
my pumpkin potion, says the sweet child,
stepping back from her wicked coughing,
the high whistling the doctors frown at
in her frozen hand the spoon hangs lifeless,
a faint smile between her laboured sipping,
the legend, the stories, now she's regretful,
sow-en, he'd repeated, the Samhain Sabbat,
the flight of the chosen, their summer's end
he's laid down marigolds, chrysanthemums,
feverish, relentless chanting, until he sleeps,
right up beside her, dreaming of the lanterns,
it'll be better tomorrow, lots more summers,
the surgeons will take back what's been said
Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.
You don't seem to want to touch me anymore. Is there someone else in your life?
I heard that sniffle the other day from my piano, worried that I am spending far too much time in front of the computer. It's true, I said, music has taken a wee bit of a back seat in recent months. Writing has become a focus.
It's not too late though, especially as we're approaching the new year for witches, the perfect occasion to make some resolutions.
So, I will continue to write and blog, but I also vow to give proper attention to the ebony and ivory that also mean so much to me.
In fact, I may try to share some of my original piano compositions with my fellow bloggers, so everyone is mutually satisfied. How's that for a compromise! I will work on how I can bring the piano to my blog!
I'm off now to fill the house with the sound of music ... but I'm not too far away!
I have just discovered a rare gem. No, it's not an African diamond the size of a rugby ball - it's the "submit a manuscript" link on the website of a major New Zealand publisher. Impressed, I have just sent them my manuscript. Fingers and toes crossed!
Why was I impressed? Take a look at how welcome they make you feel.
GUIDELINES FOR BOOK SUBMISSIONS:
We welcome submissions for book projects, novels and ideas from you, the writer. However, we have some guidelines that we would like you to read to ensure that what you send in is suitable. Otherwise you might like to try another publisher.
We welcome you to submit your manuscripts. They are sent out to a reader, and all are considered seriously. This process normally takes about one month to complete.
When submitting a manuscript for consideration you should provide a letter of introduction, a brief synopsis and your full manuscript. This should be a computer print out (preferably in double line spacing). If it is to be illustrated, please include some samples (not originals).
We do not accept unsolicited poetry, short stories or science fiction novels.
We do not accept: poetry, plays, screen plays or war diaries. Try checking in bookstores for books that are similar and send submissions to those publishers (be aware that New Zealand publishing is different from overseas. We are only interested in books with NZ content or by a New Zealand author.)
Wow! Read that again in case it didn't sink in. How many publishers invite you to send in your FULL manuscript in the first instance, and then promise that every submission is sent to a reader, and it is SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED. To boot, the process takes about ONE MONTH. It may be because New Zealand is relatively small, and they are not overloaded with hundreds of manuscripts a week. It is, however, the NZ wing of a major international publisher.
Of course, I will keep you abreast of developments. I have also submitted to an Australian publisher and one in the UK. I've decided to do multiple hits, leaving a bit of space between submissions, just in case there's a bite. I've decided to go direct to publishers who are still accessible, having become disillusioned by agents who bite and then don't swallow!
She hadn’t planned on going over that familiar wooden bridge, where searching, sweeping willows still hung over the road at the other end, as if trying to whip people back, to scare them into retreat. She hadn’t even worked out how she was going to explain the unscheduled stop to her two children, collapsed in the back seat in bitter silence, their tempers sharp from having been denied extended time with their father. The detour just happened. A flash. There was no obvious reason for going there, but now there was also no reason why not; besides, she had already navigated across the noughts and crosses of dangerous suburbs.
‘I used to know someone who lived here,’ she said quietly, her chin almost on the dashboard, struggling to make out the layout of the place. The old buildings had been married up with newer structures, with neon signs and colour where there just used to be ancient austerity.
‘This is boring,’ said Cara. ‘You’re also a liar. There’s no pizza place around here.’
Her brother agreed with a grunt, crossing his arms high up on his chest. ‘She’s just being a dick.’
‘That’s not how I want you to talk to me.’ She wanted to cry again, remembering how the children used to be, before it became just the three of them, before their lives changed so dramatically. ‘Say sorry, Adam. I know you didn’t mean that.’
Another grunt was dragged out for more effect. ‘You are such a stupid dick.’
She let the car idle, squeezing her hands together, annoyed that their breathing was fogging up the windows. She searched again through a patch she’d recently wiped, stretching her neck right around, wondering why she couldn’t recognise anything.
‘You’re just doing this to piss us off,’ said Cara. ‘You don’t want us to have any kind of a life.’
Adam started tapping the back of his mother’s seat with increasing ferocity, saying ‘dick’ with every thump.
‘That’s not nice. It’s not how I want you to behave.’ She was going to try to get upset with them, firmly scold them for their rudeness, but she’d spotted something. High above, she could make out the tall, thin cross that had been shipped there from Italy in the 1920s. The building holding up the cross, however, was now obscured by a kitchen appliances store and what seemed like a shop that sold costumes and party material.
She left the children in the car, hidden behind the moist barrier being created by their agitated breaths. She walked around the back of the new shops to find the crumbling cement building. It was not as grand and striking as she remembered. The walls seemed to exude sadness, from having mourned the passing of so many years, from having been pushed into the background by ugly, cheap façades.
The door was unlocked, which she found surprising, and an orange light came on when she flicked a switch. There used to be a sign above the entrance – The Convent of the Sisters Of Compassion - the letters of which had been burnt into a piece of varnished wood. Standing in the middle of the foyer, where it now looked like musicians advertised for partners and heart groups met for pep sessions, she trembled as she thought of the lonely girl who convinced herself that she had been saved, pacing empty corridors and kneeling in cold rooms.
Sister Angela De Brett. It never sounded quite right, and so she always avoided saying it. Sister Angela was just fine. Sister would do. The youngest in the convent, the one that needed to be the focus of more prayers than anyone else. The rosary beads around her neck, as if she needed a constant reminder. This one would be better off staying away from the TV room.
It was a difficult vocation she had chosen. I have chosen a spiritual vocation, she'd said to her best friend. No, not a spiritual vacation, not a trip to Lourdes or Bethlehem, I am marrying Jesus! I am giving my life to the church. No one ever wrote to her after she left.
Her parents used to call every now and then, but ended up complaining that she wasn’t being open with them, telling them what things were really like. She did tell them (in a rare moment of sharing) that her habit had been badly made, but she didn’t think she had the right to complain about the thick stitching that cut into her head. She finished the conversation by telling them that it was nothing compared to the suffering that Jesus endured for all of his children. Her mother cried and asked what she had done to deserve such cruel punishment from her only daughter.
Sister Angela De Brett tried to keep it to herself when she started to have dreams of being hugged by someone, of having someone simply rub her arms and brush her hair.
‘Come with me,’ she said, waking up the children with gentle nudges, their cramped positions looking painful. ‘I want you to meet someone.’ She had to pull them from the car, but it was much easier than she expected because of their sleepiness. ‘This woman meant so much to me. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.’
Adam and Cara didn’t protest. They frowned and looked annoyed at being woken up, but they did follow the heavy footsteps of their mother, grasping and rubbing their shoulders to fend off the cold.
‘What time is it?’ asked Adam, hesitant about entering the building.
Cara’s head was slumped to the side, her body limp. ‘It’s bloody well after midnight. She’s finally flipped. Fantastic!’
‘This won’t take long. I promise.’
Inside, they walked up the stairs to a small room on the first floor. It was being used now to store pamphlets and books.
She signalled for the children to go in. ‘This is where Sister Angela spent 10 months, praying on that floor every morning for two hours, really believing that she had found the perfect path for her life, where she would find love and purity.’
‘You’re a dick,’ said Adam. ‘And what the hell do we care about this stupid Sister Angela?’
Cara stopped her brother, putting her hand up in front of his face. ‘Oh my God. Mum?’
She started to cry, staring at the spot where a small wooden bed had once stood. ‘She couldn’t stay here. This wasn’t the kind of spiritual peace she was after. She thought it was, but she was young. She’d made a big mistake. She ended up realising that she couldn’t marry Jesus. She was too desperate for something else.’
‘What?’ asked Adam, searching his sister’s face for clues as to what was going on.
Cara reached out for her mother’s hand.
She dared not look at her children. She looked down at the ground. ‘She wanted the family she never had, and she thought she would find it here.’
Cara looked at her brother. ‘Did she end up finding another family?’
Adam then turned to his mother and stared.
‘She did. She married a lovely man, and together they had a little boy and a little girl. It was the family she wanted. It was her new path towards love and purity. In the end she lost the lovely man, but she still has two beautiful children.’
The three of them returned to the car in silence. They sat there for a long time without saying anything, covering themselves with some old blankets they used to take on family picnics when they were younger. Adam and Cara didn’t complain about the cold, nor about the uncomfortable positions they were in. At one point, not long before the sun came up, Cara asked her mother if she’d found it difficult changing her name. It was their first real conversation in months.
© Copyright, 2006. Seamus Kearney.
he was all 50s dapper back then
a cigarette in tender fingers
gel shining under navy lights
such a splendid sea of many possibilities
but 50 years have made him weary
the colours of bonhomie scraped off
persistent dreams all but wilted
no wonder he dissolved into an irritable man
she's remained beside him though
immune to the habit of grumpiness
anchored by the truth of appearances
impossible to even imagine anything different
life's edges are sandpapered off
few demands on empty cupboards
no surprises or risk of falling
they have a new take on universal happiness
they do hold each other sometimes
glowing about how it used to be
allowing themselves an indulgence
never a need to wonder if their love will last
© Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words
We were just having a quiet stroll through Hyde Park when ...
Click on the pictures to get a closer look.
Wow, what's going on here then?
Does anyone know what's going down - or coming up?
Should we be phoning the TV stations to tell them that some great lost treasure has been found?
Why can't we find out anything about this? There's nothing written anywhere.
Why don't these men respond? We're just a short distance from the Princess Diana Memorial. Should we be concerned?
Just another day in Hyde Park for our hopeless sleuth! It's about to rain. Come on, let's go and get a drink.
All eyes were down as meaningless words resounded around the scruffy walls of the chapel.
He protected his children.
He loved his wife.
He lived life to the full.
The words fell like lost feathers, settling in any old order. Someone added their own quiet thought: everyday he drowned himself with 16 pints between the Silver Lounge and the Memorial Hall.
The cheap wooden coffin sat askew in front of the altar. Some children giggled, but no one tried to stop them.
The priest, who’d been called at the very last minute, struggled to find his place in the tatty bible that shook like something alive in his hands. His cheeks boasted some dashes of rose and a very obvious shine of whisky.
‘Just as man comes into this world with nothing, he leaves with nothing. He is part of a wider plan. Indeed, he is part of a wider cycle. There was a purpose in his life, just as there is a purpose in his death.’
A car horn blasted outside, an excuse for one or two to cough out loud. People struggled to stop themselves from swaying. Yes, it seems, one or two had already indulged themselves.
Two small children crawled between the disorderly feet.
‘That skinny man’s got whiskers coming out of his ears.’
The children curled under a bench and looked out at the grey faces; the dark, commodious clothes; the huddled formations.
‘There’s hair growing on his nose as well.’
The priest frowned and flipped his book shut, making a signal that needed no eye contact. Annoyance jiggled about on his eyelashes. It was clear to those who knew about such things that he’d decided to forget about the wordy passages he would normally be obliged to read.
Gangly men in black, one wearing orange trainers, shuffled to their positions.
‘He looks like a werewolf,’ said the little girl beneath the bench, pulling at her little friend’s shirt.
‘You’ll be like that when you grow up.’
‘No, dummy, that only happens to boys.’
‘It’s true! Girls grow moustaches when they grow up. You’re going to have to use a shaving machine.’
An old woman - who looked to the children very much like the Queen - covered her eyes with a handkerchief.
The men in black each took a corner of the casket, which was attached to a frame on wheels, and tried to move it as gracefully as possible. Someone was reminded of a shopping trolley. The wheels screeched as it was pushed down the aisle.
‘Who’s going to shave him when he’s in there?’
‘He’s going to grow a big beard, and his hair will get really long.’
‘I thought he was going to be burnt.’
‘Yeah he is, but his body goes up into the sky first.’
‘But how can he go up into the sky and be burnt as well?’
‘I don’t know.’
The organ screamed and made everyone jump. There was another false start, inhaling and farting, and then a horrible sound as too many notes were hit at the same time. The timing was out and only a few people knew the words.
‘She’s got arthritis,’ whispered an old woman to her husband. ‘Apparently they couldn’t get anyone else who didn’t charge.’
A jolly man tried to improve the sound of the droning voices.
The little girl asked, ‘What would happen if he was only asleep?’
‘He’d be snoring if he was asleep.’
‘Maybe he’s snoring really gently and we can’t hear him.’
‘The doctors would’ve hit him really hard to see if he felt it.’
‘Do you think he’ll be able to feel it when they burn him?’
‘Is he naked when he goes into the sky?’
‘No, angels come and give him some new clothes.’
The priest signalled to everyone to get up and follow the coffin outside. The Queen stayed on her knees though, her eyes squeezed shut, her hands across her mouth and nose as if trying to avoid the smell of something horrid. The skinny man hovered beside her, not sure whether to console her, or follow everyone else and watch the coffin as it left the chapel.
Later, outside, the two children proudly sat on the fat wheels of the tractor. The little girl grinned, as if she were about to take the hot seat on a fantastic ride at a theme park. She was immune to the reproach of some of the mourners: discreet glances at the trainers on her feet, the tractor, the mud on the tyres. The coffin was slammed down onto the trailer and then covered with a flag from the local rugby club.
There had already been muttering from some that the use of a tractor was in bad taste. The man from the funeral company had agreed that he would drive it, although he insisted there wouldn’t be a big difference in the overall cost of the service and burial. He’d made it clear to the family that he thought it was inappropriate, but he would respect their wishes. Someone clapped when the headlights were flicked on and the gruff engine was brought to life.
Tom Coughlin sat in painful silence on the forty minute trip to the hospital. The sun had just started to rise, drying up the remains of overnight drizzle on the quiet streets. The rest of the world was asleep, oblivious to the fact that someone else’s life was taking a dramatic turn. There were no cameo roles, no audience, no dramatics. Just massive, ordinary life.
He lifted his head towards the old Victorian-style hospital as they pulled into the entrance. Only a few rooms in the five-storey block were lit up, and he tried to picture what his father looked like lying in one of them. He wondered what he was going to say when he saw him. Would he be conscious?
The taxi driver suddenly started talking. He spoke about plans to extend the hospital, the lack of parking, how his sister had a terrible stay there once. Tom was finally glad to be standing in the reception on his own. He nervously smiled at the nurse who appeared.
‘Mr Coughlin’s son?’ She seemed to focus on his collar. ‘I can take you through to see your father straight away if you like.’
Another nurse, with a bloated and earnest look, pointed him towards a door. She stood back and made it clear he should go in on his own. As he turned the handle, he could smell burning chicken.
He’d expected to walk into a room full of machines, tubes and drips; instead it was dark, but he could make out the shape of his father lying flat on his back, on a bed near the window. He must be asleep, Tom thought to himself. But everything looked too simple. He switched on a small lamp and then moved towards the bed. An image came into his head: a criminal slinking into the room of someone asleep and vulnerable. Now, close to the bed, he could see his father’s face. Pale. Motionless.
Tom put his hands over his mouth as he suddenly realised what he was looking at. He let out a scream, more like a caterwaul. Then, staring at the floor, he half laughed and half cried, opening his eyes wide. No one said he was dead. He was supposed to be alive. Maybe he was still alive? He looked dead, but maybe he was just resting. But then where were all the tubes and monitors, and all the gadgets you would normally see around a hospital bed? He’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead! He choked as he said the words. He couldn't stop, over and over, letting his screams burst through his shaking hands.
A nurse appeared at the door. More nurses. A doctor. Tom could hardly stand. He heard someone say that she thought he had been told. My God, the poor child didn’t know. He had unexpectedly come face to face with the horrible reality. He squeezed his eyes shut. All he could see was his father, covered in glue and chicken feathers.
‘Is there anyone we can call?’ asked one of the nurses.
It wasn't what he wanted to hear. He wanted someone else to step in and take control. The nurses seemed impatient. No time for a confused young man.
‘What about a cup of sweet tea?’ asked the nurse.
He was led towards a small side-room. The nurse whispered, with a child-like frown, that he had to think of someone they could phone. He had to gather his thoughts and help them. She said they had called for the hospital chaplain, who might be of assistance.
A cup of tea without milk was put in front of him. It was now half past seven. There were no tears. There were no thoughts.
Then he heard a feeble voice.
‘How long are you going to be in here? We’re going to need this room for someone else.’ A nurse’s jolly face stuck out from behind the door. He didn’t realise at first what he was hearing. Then, like a wave pulling back into itself before crashing, it registered.
‘Stuff you! My father’s just died! Can’t I have just ten minutes!’
The face disappeared. The door was gently shut. He stood in the middle of the room and tried to focus. The walls began to spin. He felt faint and tired and hungry. He tried to work out what he was going to do with the body. Who did he have to ring? Maybe he could use the car to come and pick up his father’s body. What did he have to do then? Who would organise the funeral? Who would pay for all of this? The most important thing was what to do with the body. He pictured himself struggling to carry his father down the stairs in a body-bag.
Then he remembered his father once talking about his wedding. Rained all day. Bride and Groom argued in the bathroom after the ceremony, and the young kid who played the out-of-tune piano hadn’t brought along any wedding music. He played some ghastly, sombre experimental-type music and everyone was on edge. A man with a camera started yelling after the service; apparently he hadn’t loaded the film. John and Serena Coughlin, I pronounce you man and wife. Not a flash to record the moment. Tom had been eager to ask his father more about Serena, unable to picture her getting married to him. He couldn’t imagine her and her life before she gave birth to her children, before she must have become so miserable. Before she decided to get away from them.
It rained heavier than anyone could remember. Somebody from the cemetery rang to say the digging of the hole had been delayed because it kept filling up with water. Three sharp would have to be six sharp. Cars were not allowed inside. Only plastic flowers could be left on the stone.
The chapel at the mill had not been used for a long time. The workers stopped turning up for weekly services years earlier, and the church couldn’t afford to keep the place open. Tom remembered throwing a stone and smashing one of the stained glass windows when he was young. The priest had said it wouldn’t need much work to get the church cleaned up for a funeral. Some of the pews were dragged up from the basement and given a good dusting down.
Old Mrs Holden had offered to organise some flowers and lead the congregation with a few hymns. She said her arthritis may be too bad for her to attempt to play the small organ tucked away under the stairs at the back, but she would see what she could do. She’d also offered to put on a cup of tea and scones at the end of the service. Tom had been uptight, wondering how many people were actually going to come.
A solemn faced man from the mill arrived at the house to give Tom a bag full of money, donated from his father’s colleagues. There was a card inside, which simply said: ‘Thinking of you at this difficult time’. Tom wondered how that could be when he’d never met any of the workers from the mill. He found it hard to stop wondering how much money was in the bag.
Apparently there’d been a few long distance telephone calls. Someone was on their way from Denmark, someone who'd heard about the death through the grapevine and felt he had to make an appearance. They'd served together in the war, apparently. A cousin was coming, as well as an old fishing mate. The big arrival, however, was Dame Jessica - that was the nick name Serena used for John’s sister. ‘Jessica, the interfering cow,’ was another way that Serena described her. It was not that she hadn’t wanted to keep in touch with the family. It was out of her control. She would’ve maintained contact if she’d been allowed to. For some reason, it seemed important that Tom understand that.
There was another phone call, which Tom agreed to take, from the grumpy old man at the store. There was an outstanding bill of 283 pounds and 16 cents - which needed to be paid. There were no condolences from the huge black bird circling around the rotting carcass of John Coughlin. Between a few gross coughs, just the important digits. Would the family still need the daily order of a loaf of white bread and the evening paper? Tom didn’t say anything. Hello? Son? Hello? Click.
A slow procession of about fifteen cars followed the tractor to the Lexington Cemetery. It was a small, fenced-in piece of land, close to the mill entrance. There were no flowers or attractive plants, just an old dead tree in one corner and a wooden shed that was falling apart in the other. Some of the thirty or so headstones were damaged and any remote sign of grass was lost to tracks of mud caused by flooding. Although the plots were free to employees and their families, the last burial had been four years earlier. People were opting to pay for burials in bigger cemeteries; apparently there was a stigma attached to being offered a plot free of charge. Many people were also not keen on the idea of resting eternally in a place that was probably responsible for their deaths.
Two women stood away from the crowd. They preferred to watch the ceremony from a distance, huddled together under an umbrella, even though the rain had eased. They watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground and people started lining up to throw dirt and flowers into the hole.
‘Didn’t know the old bastard had a kid,’ said one of the women.
‘Hardly say he was the fatherly type,’ said the other. ‘I’ll tell you who lived next door to them for a while though ... Liz and Bruce. Bloody little brat by all accounts.’
‘Not bad looking though.’
‘Didn’t get his good looks from the father then.’
‘Must be the mother, whoever she is.’
‘Strange one that. Shot the nest when the kid was young. Can you imagine?’
‘Poor little sod.’
‘Didn’t know there’d be such a big turnout for the old bugger. Didn’t know he had so many friends.’
‘He doesn’t. Good excuse to get some time off work.’
‘Can’t say anyone seems too devastated. That fat woman with all the bad makeup seems to have blubbered the most.’
‘Sister, isn’t it? Thought I heard someone say that.’
‘Get a look at her husband. He looks like a bloody flagpole.’
‘He’s got Wednesday legs.’
‘He’s got Wednesday legs!’
‘What the hell are you on about?’
‘When-is-day gonna break!’
‘You’re sick, making jokes at a funeral!’
‘Someone’s got to smile. Just look at that lot.’
One of them took out a packet of cigarettes and lit up, her eyes homing in on Tom as he stood above the grave. She watched his face as he moved forward and shovelled a bit of mud into the hole with his foot.
‘He’s a strange one all right. He looks like he’s happy to watch that box get covered up.’
Tom’s eyes followed the small carvings around the top of the coffin, knowing that people were trying to read his face. He put a hand up to his chest and tilted his head back. The sides of his mouth slowly lifted. He closed his eyes. He did nothing to stop the smirk that someone seemed to have carefully drawn on his face. It might've looked like nervousness to some, but to others there would've been no mistake that it was a smile.
He stayed like that for at least thirty seconds, keeping his eyes shut, letting the smile consume his face. It reached up and tickled his hair, ran down the back of his head. He could feel it rubbing his chest and brushing his nipples. This was a smile that really came from within, one that he’d never really experienced before.
He then let his head drop forward. The smile disappeared and he thought of Serena, going home after her own mother’s funeral and having to wash the vomit out of her young boy’s hair. He wished he could see her beside the grave, watching the old man hit the earth. He wondered how she would react. Maybe she would've smiled as well. He always said that she would go first.
At that moment something punched the inside of his tired head. Maybe she’s here! Come along to the funeral! She could be watching at this very minute. She may have read the death notice in the paper and decided to come. Who wouldn't want to watch the burial of their former husband?
He looked around frantically, moving fast, pushing into people. There were many women. Black hair. Short. Ugly. Beautiful. Glasses. Did she ever wear glasses? Has she dyed her hair? What would she look like now? Would she look the same? He trembled at the thought that his mother might be close by. He caught a glimpse of the priest, who had probably noticed the disturbed look and the frantic searching. He ignored the sweat running down his face and moved to the back of the crowd, examining the face of every woman he could see. That could be her! She could be her. The woman there with the hat and the glasses.
He stopped and looked down at his feet, telling himself to stop. It was pointless to search. He had no idea what she looked like. He lifted his head again and caught sight of a woman standing just nearby. He walked up close and tried to see behind the eyes. He tried to trace something familiar. There were wrinkles and powder and the smell of daffodils. He went up close and tried to see if there was anything at all that could reveal who she really was. His eyes came back into focus. There was nothing.
No, hang on. There. Over there. An umbrella. Cigarette smoke. Two women standing alone. Strangers. Not taking part in the farewell. Observing. One looks like she could have his red hair.
Tom didn't feel his legs move. He was dragged in a frenzy to the other side of the cemetery. Then he was there, standing in front of two middle-aged women. They nudged each other, looking confused. One of them put her cigarette behind her back. He stuttered as he tried to mouth the word.
‘S ... S ... Serena!” He stepped closer.
‘Serena!’ he said again.
‘Sorry love,’ said the other woman. ‘I know we shouldn’t really be here. There’s no harm in watching though is there?’
‘Yeah, Jody and I thought we’d come and see off your old man. I mean, say goodbye to your father. That’s all right isn’t it?’
‘I’m looking for Serena.’
‘What does she look like love?’
‘She’s my mother.’
‘I don’t know love. Was she at the service?’
‘She might be here.’
‘She might have come.’
‘It's my mother. I have to find her.’
‘Ah. Not here love. This is Jody and I’m Birdy. We worked at the mill with your father.’
‘Never met her love.’
Tom turned and ran back to the grave. His head hurt and he sweated like never before. He couldn’t remember the faces of the women he’d just spoken to, and he couldn’t remember what he’d said to them.
Jody and Birdy walked off towards the road.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here! I told you they were bloody screwed up! Jesus, I thought he was going to belt us one! He had serious psycho written on his face!’
Tom let his arms fall to his side after taking up an awkward position near the grave. People streamed past, throwing flowers into the hole. He gave each of them an empty grin as they passed. No connection. People he’d never met before. They meant nothing to him, and he’d probably never see them again.
Tall trees in the distance danced in the wind. Just slightly, ever so slightly, there was a humming sound. He closed his eyes to hear it. It was in the wind. Gentle, reassuring humming. It wasn't someone beside him, but seemed to come down from the trees. The rise and fall of a well known nursery rhyme. He tried to hum it, but his throat refused to move, staying still and dry.
Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.