Blinking into the light

Thomas Bewick’s woodcut of a badger

So. Let’s start with a beast fable.

One day a badger decided to dig a new sett. She walked through the wood until she found a sloping bank sheltered from the wind but open to the afternoon sun. It would be a good place to bring up her cubs.

She dug, clawing soil away and flinging it far behind her. Soon her snout disappeared into the ground, then her shoulders. By lunchtime, all that could be seen were occasional clumps and spurts of earth spattering out of the mouth of the sett.

She dug for days, cutting and shaping the sett until it was just as she had imagined it. At last, it was finished. The badger came out, blinking into the evening light, just as a fox strolled past.

‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the fox.

‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the badger.

‘A new sett is it?’

The badger suddenly felt shy. ‘Well, it’s something I threw together in my spare time. I’m not exactly sure it’s all right, but for the moment. You know.’

The fox tilted its head. ‘A new sett is always interesting. Why don’t you tell me about it?’

The badger scratched at the ground with a forepaw. ‘Well, the soil is dry, loamy, but with a hint of iron. About six inches down there’s a big tree root, that took a bit of getting through, but it makes a lovely feature on the side of the passage. A sort of pale disc, that glows when the light hits it. When you get about a foot and a half down the soil changes to a silty clay. I wonder if there was an old stream bed through here. The taste is gritty…’

The fox yawned. ‘Just tell me how many bedrooms there are.’

‘There aren’t any bedrooms as such. There are places for sleeping in, but the way they open off the main chamber means they aren’t really rooms.’

The fox looked passed the badger. ‘Will you excuse me, I’ve just seen a vole which hasn’t seen me.’

The fox bounded off.

The badger watched him go. ‘It is a very snug sett,’ she whispered.

I am like the badger (and not just because my beard has white streak down the middle). I have just finished the first draft of a story. Now I have to tell people of it, but I hesitate, partly out of shyness and partly because I know they will ask ‘what is the story about?’ That, as the badger found, is a difficult question. Not because the story isn’t about anything – far from it, there are forty-one thousand wonderful words I have been immersed in for months – but rather because identifying the essence of the story those words form is tricky.

When my partner asks ‘what’s it about?’ I mutter and murmur, going either too long (‘we’re in eighteenth century central Europe, do you remember when we went to Czechoslovakia to česki Krumolv and česki Budjeovice, well, its a bit like that …’) or too short (‘it’s about knowing your place in the world’). Both of those are true, but neither of them is the right answer: the scale is wrong.

So yesterday, I called out to the internet ‘help me sort out a summary for this story’ (which is called Gilbert the Liar). The internet sent me Graeme Shimmin, or at least, his web site, and particularly this page on the elevator pitch. I worked through the methodology for the log line, finally getting:

In eighteenth-century Europe, a duke’s son flees the ancestral castle to avoid marrying the bride chosen for him. An unplanned meeting with an unreliable baker gives him the chance of a life with the girl he has fallen for, if only he can overcome his strong sense of family duty.

And the Hollywood style pitch:

Trading places meets Cyrano de Bergerac.

Does that sound even a little bit interesting? If it does, you can read a few chapters here. I’m going to let it rest for a week or two and then come back to groan over it. Because that’s what I do.

The Carnival of Tyron

So. I’ve been tidying up my study, a job which has mainly involved excavating the ‘heap of shame’ which has sheltered there for several years. The heap was a combination of a two, last-millennium PCs, some of my papers, unsorted photographs and papers from my parents’ house, and a suitcase of 35 mm slides from my great-aunt Kate. Not a quick job then.

But steady work, and a lot of shredding and recycling, has cleared the heap of shame. Not that I have completed the sorting: there are still boxes of slides to go through, and papers that need to be finally sorted now that all the duplicates have gone. Instead of the heap of shame there is clear floor.

The spirit of sorting also extended to my filing cabinet and my laptop, where I have been exploring a murky folder labeled ‘archive material’. I have now pulled out The Carnival of Tyron, a fantasy novel I wrote back in the 1980s. I tried at the time to find a publisher, but didn’t have any success.

Inspired by the spirt of sorting I have rationalised the multiple paper drafts I had stashed away, thrown away the letters of rejection from agents and turned the final electronic draft into an ebook. (As I had the text in a series of word documents (one per chapter, which was how we rocked in those days) it hasn’t take much to format it in epub and kindle formats.) The Carnival of Tyron is now available as a free download from The Vault.

It’s free because I regard it as a curiosity: interesting, flawed and, for me, a memento of my earlier writing, not something that I want to charge for. If, however, after, during, or even before reading you want to pay something for the experience, and by doing so support my current writing, I am not going to stop you. Quite the opposite: I am going to make it incredibly easy. You’ll find more details on the Lighting the Lantern page.

Tess, Tess, your life is a mess

So. This post doesn’t so much contain spoilers, but is a spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending or major events of Tess of the d’Urbervilles look away now.

I have a complicated history with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which started before I read it, because Thomas Hardy wrote it and I had to wade through Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Castorbridge at school. I saw the film (no, Normandy does not look like Wessex) and read bits of it. Many years later one of my children was in a musical adaptation. (They didn’t use the title of this post as a chorus to one of their songs: but they should have, as it summarises the whole book.) Now, another of the children is studying the book for A level.

Tonight after tea, the discussion turned to Angel, and is he a baddie or not (it was a more nuanced discussion than it sounds). Soon we found ourselves asking in what week of the apprentice would the various characters in the novel have been fired: a most interesting question.

Alex should be first to go, given that raping Tess is one of the worst things that happens to her, but we reckoned he would actually last quite a few weeks, perhaps even getting to the semi-final and the interviews, mainly because he would be clever enough to present a pleasant appearance, until Margaret would tear apart his CV.

Tess’s father would go in an early week, seeing as how he was a lazy, boastful drunk, but we agreed it would be her mother who would be fired in the first week for being too keen to push Tess towards the d’Urbervilles and for failing to warn her anything about men.

The final would be Tess and Angel going head to head. Tess with her business plan for a dairy and Angel with his internet travel company specialising in South American tours. Which one would Lord Sugar (I am in the UK) choose as his business partner? 

Great as in auk

The Great Auk

So. Two short thoughts as we head for the door.

First, a recent article in The Guardian told us the French and Germans had decided Brexit was going to be treated as a masculine noun, while the Italians, although they hadn’t quite decided, were probably going to treat it as feminine noun. It was the justification I enjoyed: the underlying word in Brexit, exit, is uscita in Italian, which is a feminine noun, consequently Brexit should be feminine.

I want them to go one stage further. There is no logical reason why they have to call it Brexit. They could call it anything they liked – even something uncomplimentary. So why stick with the English word exit? Why not use uscita? Then they could call it Bruscita, which is almost an Italian word. And the English can think erroneously of toasted slices of bread with delicious toppings.

Secondly, there is a lot of talk about making Britain great again. Hmm. But it was Great Britain before the United Kingdom became an imperial power and it continues to be Great Britain even after it has ceased to be an imperial power. How so? Because Britain is Great Britain in the same sense that the Great Auk was great: to distinguish it from another similar but smaller thing. In the Great Auk’s case it was the Lesser Auk. In Britain’s case it was Brittany, that well-known settlement of Britons on the Armorican Peninsula.

The United Kingdom could turn into an unpeopled waste land, but it would still be Great Britain on the maps.

This is not a nature blog

Seals on Tyne


So. Although this site is mainly about words and that, nature keeps creeping in. Yesterday I was cycling along the banks of the Tyne. The tide was going out, so there were mud banks showing on both sides of the river. Nearer Newcastle that exposed traffic cones flung off bridges, the ribs of old boats and water-logged tree-trunks that have become stuck in the mud. As I came round one bend with a broad stretch of mud on the outside of the curve I saw plenty of gulls and waders, a few cormorants and another couple of tree-trunks.

Expect they weren’t. They were seals. Two seals lying on the mud beside the Tyne.

I stopped to watch and photograph. I don’t have a wonder-camera, only my phone, which is why the photograph above is so grainy – maximum zoom and they still look tiny. As I watched I realised there was a third seal in the water, occasionally it would arc out of the water and splash back in.

The two on the bank busied themselves with lying there, but now and again would curl their tails or go into a stretch of head and tail that made them look like a big, brown, furry banana.

After a few minutes I cycled on, got to the mid point of my ride, crossed the river and cycled back, choosing the path that would take me along side the river all the way. As I had hoped, the seals were still there: now all three of them on the mud. The one that had been in the water was smaller than the others and was more bothered by the sea-birds that came gradually closer. When they got too close it rippled furiously towards them. I took more pictures and finally cycled on.

After the excitement of seeing them – and I was excited, pointing them out to passers-by – I wondered whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that there were seas in the Tyne. On the one hand, it could be good, because it is a sign of the improved water quality. But then it could be a sign that life for seals is so grim elsewhere that it’s worth taking a chance on the Tyne. I hope it’s the first, but I have no data.

But just to be clear: this is not a nature blog.

Small stories of cycling

Grey heron against grey water and grey mud

So. A few small stories from a week in cycling.

Story One

On Tuesday I locked my bike up outside Newcastle City Library. I had a couple of hours between meetings so I went to a quiet spot and worked on Gilbert the Liar. When I came out the little box of cycle extras (tyre levers, patches, allen keys) that lives in a pouch under the saddle was gone.

Story Two

This morning, as I was cycling along the Keelman’s Way just west of the King Edward VII bridge, I saw a heron at the water’s edge. I stopped and watched it for a while and took a picture (yup, that’s it on the right). After a couple of minutes it took to the air and flew up river, never more than ten feet above the water.

Story Three

A couple cycling the other way asked for directions. They were heading for South Shields as part of a ride along Hadrian’s Wall. Their map, which would have been fine for the rest of the route, was really too small a scale for navigating Tyneside. We discussed their route back to Central Station: it doesn’t matter how you do it, but a one point in any ride from the river to Newcastle city centre you have to go up hill. I tried to push that thought out of my mind as I rode on.

Story Four

On a path to the north of the river I saw a woman calling a dog. Then I saw the dog, standing proud on a hillock. The dog wasn’t listening to her, but was giving me its full attention. That was worrying. Finally, it responded to her calls and bounded down the hill. By the time I reached them, the dog was all over the path, bouncy, but not aggressive. I stopped. The woman apologised.

It was her husband’s fault. The previous Saturday she had taken the dog for a walk and her husband had cycled up. Now the dog thought that every cyclist was him and would go up to greet them. Not a problem, I said, and cycled on.

Story Five

At the Ouseburn Cycle Hub I stopped and bought replacements for my missing tyre levers and puncture kit, and a little tin box to keep them in.


National Poetry Day

So. Today (6th October – Gregorian Calendar) is National Poetry Day. Hurrah. Poetry is good enough to deserve a day. Unfortunately, I have not written a poem today: too busy working and thinking about heat loss and condensation.

But I did write a poem yesterday. Normally, I would post a little bit of a poem, but I am not going to post this one, because there is serious scope for being misunderstood. Not only does it include words I would not normally use – not sweary or vulgar but differently unpleasant – but it does not represent my own feelings or opinions. How so?

Because I have written the UK’s next ‘Song for Europe’ which turns out to be an unpleasant, self-satisfied, xenophobic rant.

I am torn. At one level, I think it is appropriate and very, very pointed. And at another level, I am shamed of having used some of the words in it, and I do not want anyone to be in anyway confused and to think this might be my actual real opinions. So I will not post it, or publish it, until it is being sung by the next incarnation of the Spitting Image puppets.


A short history of writing on the move

A Handspring (2000 AD) and a Palm Tungsten (AD 2003)

This post is a little like Ikea, if you want to skip past the kitchen displays and the bedrooms just get to the marketplace and checkouts then just jump here.

And I can only assume that if you are still reading you are ready for a little meander.

I have been writing for years (I tried to write an encyclopaedia when I was about ten: was this ambition?), but have only been writing on computers thirty years. This has been a good thing as my handwriting is both abominable and abominably slow: since I have using computers people have been able to read my words – for good or ill. The downside was being tethered to a computer keyboard. First a mainframe terminal, linked to a computer running MTS (Michigan Terminal System in case anyone’s interested), then an Amstrad PCW 8256 and a little later a PC (a 386 from a manufacturer which folded a few weeks after I bought the machine).

Any time I wanted to write I had to be at the desk, which was really annoying. I had all manner of attempts at working around, including a dictaphone (for which I made a little foot pedal – screwing a switch to a piece of plywood and doing a spot of soldering). If I was away from the machine I would write – on paper, with a pen – then type it up. I wrote a couple of unpublished (unpublishable) manuscripts (let’s not call them books) using that method. It was so frustrating – particularly (did I mention) given my handwriting was slow and bad: in the worst case I can only read my own writing within five minutes of writing it.

Then, towards the end of the 1990s (so long ago) there were Palm Pilots, the first laptops, the Apple Newton. Hints towards writing on the move. Finally, in 2000, I bought a Handspring: a green plastic block with a blocky screen. No keyboard, but a stylus for making almost writing shapes. Wonderful. I could write where I was then upload the words to my PC and drag them into a Word document. Even better when I got a folding keyboard to go with it and I could touch type to the small green plastic block. The scary thing with the Handspring was changing the batteries: thirty seconds to do it or everything vanished.

The Handspring was a game changer, but the whole Palm/Handspring landscape that seemed so solid, so well developed, has vanished like the missing part of a Norwegian valley – ground away under the weight of a glacier. Three years later I upgraded to a Palm Tungsten, which slid up and down on itself and had a folding keyboard. I wrote some good stuff on that. But, of course, a but, there was still the need to transfer the text to a proper computer and fiddle with it. And editing a document of any length was painful.

The split of little device and tethered computer disappeared when I got my first laptop, a G4 iBook. It wasn’t one of the orange or blue clam cases (I still love that design, even though I never had one). The iBook was a breakthrough, the words in the right format, wherever I was. It was good, and got even better when I tried out Scrivener: astonishing software which just fitted with the way I write. I mean, how often do you start at the beginning and keep hammering on to the end until you’ve finished? Or do you write bits and pieces in different files and on little pieces of paper that have to be connected with letters in big circles and squares to link it together. I am definitely in that second category, so Scrivener was almost a miracle.

I have written so much in Scrivener: plays, brochures, stories, technical books. The only thing I don’t start in Scrivener is poetry: for some reason that still starts on the page with a fountain pen.

But lap tops weren’t that small, still a couple of kilos to carry around. Not exactly stick in the pocket stuff. So when the iPads came out I got one: with a bluetooth keyboard it was a nice writing machine (I still can’t cope with the on-screen keyboard, touch typing doesn’t work on an immobile screen). But I was back in the dark valley of syncing and formatting. Until July 2016, which is when Scrivener for iOS was released.

[And a welcome back to those who have cut through and missed the wardrobes and kitchens.]

Scrivener for iOS is as astonishing as Scrivener on the Mac. The whole paradigm of writing in pieces, not writing in one long stream. The binder, the synopsis, the metadata, the document notes (because a document is not simply a piece of text, but an embedded part of a network of thought and words), all there on the iPad.

And all synchronising back and forward before the iPad and the Mac, happening solidly through Dropbox. The same words, the same formatting, here, there, on the bigger screen, on the smaller screen. Even (thank you aeroplane mode) thirty thousand feet above the ground). Somehow this brings together the mobility, the decent keyboard and the proper formatting.

Scrivener of iOS is not the be all and end all: it still doesn’t make the coffee, and I still have to hammer the words out from my head. But it is a wonderful piece of software. So thank you Keith (not Kevin).

And everybody else, please buy Scrivener.

About bricks

So. I’ve spent some time in Siena and, apart from the Duomo and its marble, the overwhelming impression is one of brick. Mediaeval brick, renaissance brick, modern brick. Brick which makes walls, arches, columns, even floors (though strictly the Sienese probably count that as tile).

You can trace the history of a wall in the changes in the brick, the infill, the lack of bond in one corner, the change in brick size, or the way a string course suddenly stops. The wall I am facing now has a blocked up window with three different brick lintels and arches above it. Some of the arches are uniform, some have rubbed bricks at the centre of the flat arch to create the necessary forces to hold it up: each arch reflects a remodelling, someone’s decision to change the way they use the building.

Now, one of the things about these bricks is that they have all been made by hand. Someone has dug out the clay, puddled it to get out the biggest impurities, slapped it into a mould, let it dry and then fired it. All of that before any kind of building work has taken place. Also, at one step further down the process, someone has cut down a lot of trees in order to feed the kilns that fire the brick. Every brick is therefore a hand-made object and a record of human activity.

There are maybe ten thousand bricks in the wall facing me, which is one wall of four storey building. The rest of the street’s façade has maybe ten times that number: so a hundred thousand bricks on one short stretch. Give each building a back, party walls and floors and we are up to maybe half a million bricks. Add the other side of the street and we are up to a million bricks. (By this point my numbers have become very approximate and I should perhaps stop estimating and multiplying, but it is tempting to continue.) If we say the streets of mediaeval and Renaissance Siena are somewhere between two hundred and fifty and five hundred times the length of this short street – which is not impossible – we end up with a somewhere between a quarter and half a billion bricks in Siena.

That naive, arithmetical reflection can lead me in one of two ways: I can think about the community of interdependence required to create those bricks: the digger-out of clay, the brick-maker, the forester, kiln-master, waggoner, blacksmith, wheelwright. All those people need to eat, drink, sleep, marry and give in marriage. There needs to be a whole bunch of other people busy at their work before a single brick can be laid. (And I haven’t even started on the making of the lime mortar necessary to bed the bricks. Somehow, perhaps because it is shapeless, the mortar doesn’t get the attention it maybe should.)

And that actually brings me round to the second way of thinking about bricks: economically, as an expression of the use of surplus. The level of production in Siena and its territory has to be much greater than would be required just to keep everyone fed, clothed and sheltered.The bricks consume the surplus, just as the city elites consume the surplus of the countryside (leaving trade aside for the moment): in fact, as I think about it a little further, the bricks are a consumption of the countryside, as much as the brocades, velvets and laces of the city.

There is a weight pressing down in the bricks of Siena that is more than just the mass of burnt clay.

Farewell, my web-footed friends

F1000028So. I started writing a poem about waiting. And in one of those curious moments of decision I went for rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza with an ababbcc rhyme scheme (supposedly ‘royal’  because James I of Scotland used it for his poem The Kingis Quair, but possibly more prosaically named for the French chant royal: less exciting and therefore probably right: thank you as ever, Wikipedia).

The first stanza turned out to be about penguins, the way the male emperor penguins look after the eggs through the winter, clustering together to keep off the worst of the weather.

But then the other verse started to arrive. And they didn’t have anything to do with penguins. In fact the penguins were starting to stand out. Four verses in they were standing, staring at me.

I don’t like being stared at. So they had to go. But as I don’t like making penguins homeless I have re-housed them here.

The hundred-miling molecules of wind

hand out, in passing, slaps of air and snow;

their greetings for the penguin backs they find,

black barnacled in drear paternal row.

Their futures, feather-lodged, and set to grow,

Maintain their seasons, won’t be hastened on.

The wind observes, and just as quick, is gone.