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.

The morning after the morning after


So. At this time on a Saturday morning, with the weekly shopping done, I would normally be writing poetry. But poetry takes a certain amount of focus, and today I do not have that. Following the referendum result, the UK and Europe face years of challenge and uncertainty. I find myself uneasy and worried.

I know there are many people who see this as a wonderful new start for the UK, free of the shackles of the European Union. I trust they will use their sudden freedom responsibly, to make the UK a peaceful, stable, generous, welcoming place.

As for me, I do not share their near-mystical faith in the British (look how I am already in a terminological mess by the third paragraph as I try to tease things out). There are many, many good things about the UK and, having lived here all my life, I know how things work and I can be comfortable here. (I prefer East Anglian beer to any other in the world, but that is, in part, because that was the beer I started drinking.)

I can admire the view across a valley, seeing the pattern of the hedgerows and fields, the woods and the single oaks in the pastures. Yet at the same time I know a large part of that landscape was formed as the result of an eighteenth century land-grab, carried out by the elite and sanctioned by their unrepresentative parliament. (And the same, or worse, can be said about the grouse moors of Scotland.)

There is a certain inevitablity in quoting Chesterton when talking about the UK (and again, the terminology: Chesterton wrote a History of England, not a History of Britain). When, during the Boer war, he was faced with maddened imperialism, he observed:

‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

You love your mother because she is your mother, but do you want her to behave like that?

Britain no more has a ‘rightful place in the world’ than the USA has a ‘manifest destiny’, and the ‘British way of life’ has no more intrinsic value than any other. Such value it has comes from its alignment to universals such as justice, truth and kindness.

But we are where we are. So the question is ‘what do I do?’

Despair and resentment are not options. My answer is that I must act with justice, truth and kindness, and I must work that out in everything that I write and create.

It is time to write poetry again.

The Fourth Crusade

The Taking of Constantinople by Palma Le Jeune (1544–1620)

So. Let us briefly turn away from today’s momentous events and bask in the warm and comforting glow emitted by the distant past. A period so remote that in our house it is referred to as ‘days of yore’ (which is much longer ago than ‘the olden days’). The period of the Fourth Crusade.

Now, the Fourth Crusade, which was led by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat, was intended to regain the Holy Land by attacking through Egypt. The crusaders gathered in Venice in 1202 and readied to sail for Cairo. Unfortunately, they couldn’t pay their debts to the Venetians (who were supplying the ships and sailors for the expedition). After some negotiation it was agreed the crusaders would harry Venice’s competitors on the Adriatic.

In 1202 the crusaders arrived at the city of Zara (present-day Zadar) which was independent but under the protection of the King of Hungary. Pope Innocent III had forbidden the crusaders to attack any Christian cities: the leaders of the crusade chose to conceal his letter from their followers and stormed the city.

After that bad start the story becomes even murkier, as the crusaders became involved in the politics of the Byzantine Empire, most probably for money. They sailed for Byzantium (Constantinople). In April 1204, after a complex series of events, the crusaders attacked and took the city, sacking it for three days.

“O City, City, eye of all cities, universal boast, supramundane wonder, nurse of churches, leader of the faith, guide of Orthodoxy, beloved topic of orations, the abode of every good thing! Oh City, that hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury! O City, consumed by fire…” (Niketas Choniates)

The crusaders set up a Latin kingdom centred on Byzantium. Ultimately, the Latin kingom was overthrown and Byzantine rule restored, but the Byzantines had been fatally weakened and they proved unable to resist the advance of the Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks. The city fell in 1453, and most of the Balkans were overrun by the Ottoman Empire.

Only a very small proportion of the crusaders ever reached the Holy Land.

But that was then. In the present day we can be confident that no ideological crusade which starts out to ‘liberate’ a land can ever lead to disaster and impoverishment for millions across Europe.

So not a therapist

The Nightmare (Thomas Burke (artist), after Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) – Tate Britain, Public Domain)

So. Recently, I ran a workshop on techniques to start creative projects. I have run it a few times now (and I have written about the techniques elsewhere), but not so often that I am on autopilot. Almost every time I find out something interesting for me. This time was no different.

We started the session doing some free writing starting from the phrase ‘a garden is …’. Everyone got their heads down and wrote, all in handwriting tidier than mine. Then we went round to see what people had found in their writing. As you’d expect, even with that starting point there was a huge variation in the approach, subject and style of the writing. But what I hadn’t expected was that one person became quite emotional as they finished going through their text.

It came as a surprise, but, on reflection, really shouldn’t have. We aren’t doing therapy, but any workshop which involves people accessing the things inside them, has the possibility that some of those things will be disturbing or distressing. We are always hoping for wonders, but there is no rule that the things which emerge will be beautiful and uplifting.

No life is entirely free of pain, and for many people life is grim. If we invite them to an act of self-exposure – which is what writing is – we should expect evidence of those experiences in what they create.

In fact, given that we are dealing with human experience I’m surprised that so little of what comes out is negative. On this occasion, we gave the person a moment, then moved gently on to the next exercise.

And I was reminded, once again, of the power of this writing stuff, which I sometimes treat too glibly.


The left-handed writer

So. I have a couple of poems going up in an exhibition at the Catalyst Festival. Grand. But the organisers also wanted a bit of blurb about ‘why I write’.

That paralysed me. Why do I write? Flippin’ heck. It doesn’t help that I have always found this sort of meta-writing difficult (I don’t like writing press-releases or advertising text either). Some authors write books about why they write (and maybe someone, somewhere has written a book about why they wrote a book about why they write), but, honestly, I can’t be bothered with that.

I don’t want the grim wisecrack, in the style of Doug Stanhope (‘I’m Doug Stanhope and that’s why I drink’). Nor do I want the weirdly worthy: for example David (and Leigh) Eddings:

The field of fantasy has always been of interest to him, however, and he turned to The Belgariad in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.

(I have loved that sentence for over thirty years.)

I was stuck. Then, on a train, away from the interwebs, I thought I might as well try one of the techniques I recommend to other people: five minutes’ free writing. I opened a new text document in FoldingText (because there is no possibility of wasting time with formatting) and started typing.

It worked. The first few sentences were gibberish, but quite soon I got something worth developing. What I ended up with is manifesto-y, but I think it is an adequate answer. Here it is.

Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.

Radio playing

20160507-100850.jpg So. I went to Alphabetti Theatre to see Frank Sumatra by Mike Yeaman, which the publicity described as being performed in the style of a radio play. (As an aside – if I needed any encouragement for that – if you are in the North East of England go to Alphabetti. It’s a shoe-string operation which does great theatre in a basement.) It was a great evening with a funny, well-performed piece, which left me thinking about the radio play format.

In my teens I listened to a lot of radio drama: adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers detective stories, half-hour comedies, proper plays. I even tried writing them myself. (My early 70’s play about a plane hijacking – very topical then – used a hoover for the sound of an aeroplane taking off: that was before I got my first cassette recorder.) Despite all that listening I haven’t thought about them very much: so here goes.

The first and obvious thing about radio plays is that you can present any scenario you want, provided you can present a realistic soundscape. You can do things you can’t do on stage or in film without a massive budget. In Frank Sumatra, Frank was an orang-utang, four months old at the start at the play and fully grown by the end: eat your heart out Richard Linklater.

Beyond even Frank are the Goon Shows, which used the freedom of the format to create astonishing sound images: a rabid Christmas pudding terrorising people; a man travelling in a crate (Eccles: ‘Ah this is the life, being nailed up in a crate and carried across Africa’); a canvas tent with an upstairs.

Why does that work? My current idea is that radio draws on our experience of oral storytelling: it is a step beyond Charles Dickens giving readings from his work, but still on the same path. In the same way as our friend giving us the ‘he said, she said’ of their day, the radio play invites our engagement with a vocal story. We have to put ourselves in the path of the play.

The second thing I noticed was the treatment of time. The radio play, like the novel (and the TV advert) can make huge temporal jumps: ten seconds of a Frank Sinatra song and the characters in Frank Sumatra have conceived, carried and given birth to a child. Brilliant. And no need for a nine months later caption. The story-telling roots permit the leaps in time, which the more visual presentation of theatre and film balk at.

The more I think of it, the more interesting the format becomes, even without the additional layering of the live stage performance of Frank Sumatra (and, in its first incarnation Anomalisa). I might have to give it a shot myself.