21 November, 2009

Of genius feet turning to clay

London youth club I'm involved with tries to instil sportsmanship and fair play in every boy who plays for one its nine football teams. How much harder this task becomes when the exhortations of mere mortals have to compete with an example set by one of the world’s greatest players and (I'm a lifelong Gooner) a hero of mine.
Thierry Henry’s cheating moment is already on the TVs and computer screens of young footballers around the world and some, alas, will try to imitate it. But what if he had admitted the handball to the ref? Now wouldn’t that be a YouTube clip to die for - one that every parent, teacher and coach could deploy when promoting the integrity of sport.
He may not, as he says, be the ref. However, he is a sportsman with a duty to be sporting. By delegating personal responsibility for his actions to the ref, he has tarnished the great game he has graced for so long.
I wonder if Thierry’s advice to his own son would be to ‘cheat if you can get away with it’ or to ‘do the honourable thing’?
If it were to be the latter, I’d love him to visit our youth club and say so to the young footballers for whom he is an inspiration.

25 March, 2009

Of aspiring writers and (some) agent/publisher websites

As an aspiring writer, I hoover up advice wherever I can find it. Among the most valuable sources are agent/publisher websites. Thanks to their good counsel, I have enough information to avoid irritating them and/or humiliating myself when I send off my query letter, synopsis and sample chapters. After all, the rules of submission mean ‘You do it their way’. 

I accept, too, that with aspiration comes disappointment. Before sending off my work, I will inoculate myself with large doses of realism about the talent I may, or may not have (goodness knows, there is enough advice out there urging me to do this). And if I’ve learned anything about contacting agents and publishers, it’s that whatever reply I get, no matter how I feel about it, my response will be:

• to be grateful 
• to take on board, seriously and thoroughly, what has been said 
• to get back to improving the writing and to making the next approach better 

And if there is no reply, I'll cleave to the last point. However, a wearisome feature of some websites is the regular ‘screamer’ of the “I’m surrounded by idiots” variety, when referring to contact with writer wannabees. Authentic examples are publicly (although anonymously) posted about writers who have sent in inappropriate, illiterate, inconsiderate, ignorant, impolite or downright rude letters. 

The patronising, “can you believe this?” rant is usually rounded off with some finger-wagging advice. This can be funny but – and I hesitate to say this about arbiters of originality and talent – it’s becoming boringly samey.

More often than not, the ‘Comments’ sections for these tirades are packed with 'Right ons,' or 'Can you believe its?' and other messages of mutual solidarity/sympathy from fellow professionals and, worse, from sycophantic writers, who line up with teacher to say ‘good post (you couldn’t possibly mean me)!’ 

Good agent/publisher websites provide invaluable help and encouragement. However, for most didactic efforts there will always be too many pupils ‘who just don’t listen'. When this happens, it’s a tad too easy to play it for laughs in yet another “How not to do it” story of hapless writers getting it wrong.

Of course, it’s not one-way traffic. Writers have myriad ways of letting themselves and fellow writers down, not least by behaving badly when their wonderful talent isn’t appreciated. Nevertheless, most of us read and take professional advice; it’s only completely in our own interest. 

So, for the advice offered – without charge – sincere thanks. But how about a little less scorn?

12 March, 2009

The great Hugh Leonard

I missed the news of the recent death of Hugh Leonard, one of the great comic writers - up there alongside Flann O’Brien, James Thurber and Damon Runyon.

For me,
Home Before Night (apparently out of print, shame on Penguin) is the funniest-ever novel and Da was the equally funny but more heartbreaking play that was based on it. It brought my Irish father to tears of sadness and joy when we saw it together (his first theatre visit) at London’s Kings Head Theatre in the 70s; he also spent rest of the evening drinking with the play’s star, Eamon Kelly.

Leonard’s series of half hour TV plays set in Dublin could have been called
Dubliners, if James Joyce hadn’t used the title first. The plays usually ended with David Kelly sitting on a street bench and summing up the preceding 30 minutes with the superbly philosophical, ”Ah well, der y’ar”, which is every bit as good as, "So it goes" in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

I wonder which modern English writer has written or could write as well about my own city of London and fellow Londoners?

Three more-or-less accurate quotations come to mind before I go back to his writing and savour the whole treasure trove:
Of a woman who lies about her age. “I’d hate to be hanging since she was 50.”
Of a dry, pedantic suitor who had been rejected by his love and at whose funeral “the only mourners will be a group of unsplit infinitives.”
On hearing that his writing rival, Ulick O’Connor, was in hospital, “It must have been something he wrote."

I picked out ‘Dublin’ among the host of Irish accents at Cheltenham yesterday – accompanied by ever-present laughter. Is the Festival the only world-class sporting event at which so many people have drunk a little too much, where even more have lost money but where everyone seems to be happy?

Photo Irish Connections

05 March, 2009

On better reading and writing

I’ve been putting off reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I don’t know why exactly; something to do with a sneaking conceit that literary criticism can be lofty, dusty and display too much academic preening. And little of it ever led me eagerly to read the authors being appraised.

So, do I need to know how fiction works? Truth is that my reading demands have rarely risen above asking if the fiction works for me.

My reading choices weren’t steered by literary criticism but mostly by an erratic ‘banging around’ like a pinball between different pingers (what is the word for those things that thump the silver ball about?):
• personal preferences, involving too much clinging to favourite authors, and to their favourites
• wider, braver choices suggested by trusted reading friends
• a need to read the ‘surely you must have read’ ‘classics’ and ‘leading’ authors (pretension is a fair old reading stimulus)
• good author interviews (reviews of Anita Brookner’s new novel didn’t lead me back to her, but Mick Brown's recent Telegraph interview did)
• compelling reviews
• good book covers

Lifetime reading hours have been infinitely greater than those spent writing. So, I'm a far better, more experienced reader than I am a writer; something that obtains for all writers, albeit in differing proportions. But it’s only the writing we get to see, even though we can hear whispers and occasional shouts of other authors rising from the page.

Friends suggested that How Fiction Works would make me a better reader – a bit worrying when they know it’s the writing I’m struggling with. They were right. And blessings on Mr Woods, if only for making ‘free indirect style’ something I now completely understand.

I’ve little to add to the blurb on the book’s cover, save that I do feel a better reader. And writer? Yes. The endless but essential reading and re-reading of my own drafts may have got more demanding but it has also become more productive.

Today’s bonus: fine poem by Carl Dennis

Image courtesy of sociallyglobal.ning.com

25 February, 2009

What's funny?

Hazel Blears MP got in an early plug this morning on the Today Programme for a speech she is giving this evening (remember when news was reported only after something had happened?). However, she was speaking of the sound notion that by improving communication and understanding we can reduce misplaced beliefs that some things we say, or do, will be offensive to other communities. When asked if Irish, English, Scottish jokes are OK, she struggled a bit. Who wouldn’t? It depends on context, intent etc, on which it’s nigh on impossible to be certain, let alone to legislate.

Now, off down a tangent. What is funny? Answer: anything that makes us laugh. Is it possible to laugh at something we shouldn’t? Answer: of course it is.

‘How dare he?’ said Billy Connolly, when hearing a fellow comedian list a number of issues that he deemed as ‘off limits'. The Big Yin had a point.

Take just one of the myriad subjects about which we would not wish to hear jokes and then tell us a joke about it. If we find it funny, then it
is. We may be ashamed of ourselves moments later but our immediate reaction can’t always be considered and our ‘appropriateness filter' may not be in place in time to stop a smile.

To claim that something offensive cannot be funny is nonsense. However, it
can be wrong. And if it is, we must be prepared for the social or legal sanctions that follow.

Were we to end up in court and to be found guilty, we can hope (vainly, I suspect) that the magistrate’s comments would relate only to the misdeed, not to its laughter quotient. To say that the offence wasn’t funny would be irrelevant; just as it would be to say, ‘I find you not guilty because what you said was an absolute hoot.’

Improving our antennae to pick up the sensitivities of others has to be a good thing, and it doesn’t need to involve a slide into PC. Miss Blears is bang on to suggest that understanding each other better will help us to avoid shaky assumptions born of unwarranted fears about giving offence. To this end, her speech rightly refers to, ‘a need for moral clarity, a dividing line rooted in our overriding sense of what is right and wrong.’

In the meantime, the rightness or wrongness of ‘English, Irish, Scottish jokes, won’t prevent them from being found funny; and saying ‘it was only a joke’ will never be an excuse for hurting others.

19 February, 2009

Does charity begin at home?

During a BBC radio discussion yesterday on whether UK troops should be in Afghanistan, Nicky Campbell summed up the position of those opposing intervention with the term, ‘Charity begins at home’.

This diverted me from the weighty issue at hand to consider what we mean by this convenient aphorism. I soon realised that it is a call not to begin giving at home but but to stop giving to those who are not ‘at home’. It’s distinctly uncharitable.

When Terence first uttered the phrase in the second century BC, he was underpinning Rome's famous lack of charity for others. Fair enough. Looking after our own is a primary obligation and one with which we willingly comply because it matches natural motivation and feels right.

But this isn’t charity; it’s self-interest.

As in any small quest for semantic clarity, here are the inevitable references from the Oxford English Dictionary:

• “Voluntary giving of help or money to those in need” – nothing about ‘only to those close to us’
• “Love of humankind” – nothing about ‘only of our own kind’.

Even in difficult times, it would be a pity to forget the needy strangers, whose only link to us may be their fellow humanity. The needs of others and our own are rarely that incompatible. However, balance is essential. In Bleak House, Mrs Pardiggle’s misplaced preoccupation with the wants of others blinds her to the most important duty of looking after her own family. She is sustained by the feel-gooding she derives from do-gooding. Dickens’ own comment was, “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”

So, what outcomes from these brief musings? The first is a belated realisation that ‘charity begins at home’ is oxymoronic, because charity can’t exist once we raise the drawbridge on those who are outside ‘home’. The second is that when I next say, ‘no’ (as I often do) to a charitable request or impulse, I’ll choose more appropriate words.

And I'd like to think that the Samaritan didn't cross over to help the injured stranger because it would make him a Good Samaritan but because he knew that charity didn’t begin on his side of the road.

13 February, 2009

Your writing and the views of family and friends

Among the (too) many ‘how to books’ I’ve read, an ever-present piece of advice – sometimes offered harshly, sometimes gently – warns writers against showing their work to, or readily accepting the views of family and friends.

Reasonable advice once we're under way, by which time, hopefully, we're leavening their comments with expert advice on what’s needed if we're to stand a chance of being published.

But what about at the beginning?
When we had just a rough first chapter, the vaguest outline, or one or two ‘good bits’ that might work up into something? When those close to us were putting up with our anxiety and frustration, listening one day to our doubts, the next to our excitement? When we were asking ouselves ‘who do I think I am to be writing a novel?' Or feeling embarrassment at mentioning it? Or being afraid to commit?

Family and friends (well most of them) may not have known too much about writing but they did know us – and what our writing meant to us. They were saying ‘yeah, of course you can,' why not?’ ‘I like it,’ ‘keep going,’ long before we risked reading even a page at our local writing group, never mind showing work to agents and publishers. Sure, we knew at heart not to confuse their unconditional support with objective literary acumen. But it was all we had. What’s more, it helped get us going. ‘The longest journey in the world starts ... etc'

So, if you’re finally getting down to writing that novel, play, short story or poem, there’s time enough for objective assessment. Until you’re ready for it – and you must get ready – go on, inhale the oxygen-rich support of loved ones.

Of course, when you’ve finally something to show an agent or publisher, anyone for that matter, don’t say that ‘my mother and my wife love it.’ But don’t you dare forget that they do, and that they loved it at the beginning when no one else did. If they hadn’t, the professionals might never have got to see what you're writing.

This post was prompted by a long-into-the-night conversation at an Arvon 'Starting to Write' course in which some of us revealed we'd been given the final push to attend not by writers, teachers or books, but by family and friends.

10 February, 2009

Grumpy? Moi?

After a barbed suggestion that the Saying I love you post signalled ‘grumpy old man’ – like that bit of beard missed when shaving – I was further impaled this morning by this (daily Google quotes), ‘The second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.’ Dostoevsky.

Oh dear. There is a gravity of ageing. If not resisted, it carries us deeper into the familiar and comfortable collection of our polished, chrome-hard views, and away from the new and the unknown.

What to do? Well, I won’t be abandoning strongly held views without a fight. But I do recognise hardening of the attitudes as an age-related condition that, like cholesterol levels, must be monitored closely. No one wants wimpy ‘I dunno, what do you think?’ responses to questions, but I will try to get better at waiting for the question before offering my amazing experience.

The least attractive aspects of the grumpy old guys and gals on the telly are their certainty and self-satisfaction – fellow travellers of ageing. Even though I may agree with them, I fear that what young people in particular pick up is their self-assured, patronising manner, not their humorous take on things. ‘It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.’ HL Mencken,

Some time ago, after hearing a particularly enlightening, albeit unasked for, piece of fatherly wisdom, one of my daughters asked, “dad when was the last time you ever changed your mind?”

‘Nuff said.

07 February, 2009

The difference words can make

This photo accompanies Mark Willis’s compelling piece on culture and accessibility at A Blind Flaneur

Such a bleak image from another time brought to mind a story told me by Graham Lancaster, leading communications professional and author of several novels, to illustrate the difference words can make.

A blind man at a street corner was shaking a tin cup into which few people were dropping coins. On a slate board around his neck, he had chalked, Blind. One passer-by asked if he might add something to his sign. The blind man agreed and handed over his chalk. The passer-by wrote on the slate and left.

He returned later to ask how things had gone. The blind man told him that they had gone marvellously and that he had trebled his normal takings. Asked what he had written, the passer-by said that he had added just three words. The message now read:

... and it’s Spring

Photo: Paul Strand. Blind. 1916. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

05 February, 2009

Saying I love you

I’ve been thinking, possibly too much, about saying, ‘I love you’. According to hints from those who know they’re my loved ones, I don’t do it enough; say it aloud, that is. I’m not sure I want to.

How often is enough? My Joda reply - that ‘say’ may be important but so is ‘do’ - doesn’t get me off the hook. Anyway, if I am saying it too rarely, a dismaying number of people are making up for me.

Everyone’s at it: on the train, at the school gate, on the phone, in TV dramas. At every temporary parting (it's probably OK if you’re about to fly to Australia or sail around the world single-handedly) someone is telling someone that they love him or her.

‘I love you’ is losing its identity through being wrapped ever more tightly around ‘goodbye’, as in, ‘bye, I love you’. Or it's being replaced altogether: witness, daily, the waved hand followed by, ‘love yoo’, often chanted without a backward glance at the object of this most perfect sentiment.

I don’t doubt that those beating ‘I love you’ to death do love those to whom they say it. I do doubt the need to say it ALL THE TIME. Drowning each other in daily doses of it, degrades a wonderful sentence (where it is a complete sentence) into something prosaic and trivial.

The phenomenon is related, in an era of positive affirmation, to our tendency to reach straightaway for a superlative when describing the merely good or nice. ‘Oh, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen’ about a welcome (or not so welcome) gift. But what do you say when presented with something that is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? Worn out superlatives won’t be up to the job.

I digress. As 14 February looms, I wonder if turning ‘I love you’ into daily gabble, along with ‘whatever’ and its ilk, could kill the joy of Valentine’s Day itself. Think of youngsters – the most highly exposed recipients of this quotidian term of farewell – when opening Valentine’s cards that say, ‘I love you’. How will they know whether they’re being dumped, or their admirers actually love them?

Familiarity breeds… etc. Receiving the most potent message in the English language several times a day weakens its impact; and if ever a message was meant to have impact it's ‘I love you'. Do we need to fear for its power even when whispered in the personal, intimate situations that it normally electrifies? Hope not.

‘I love you’: the most beautiful words we can hear. Let’s keep them for best.

Bye (and not, absolutely not, 'Love yoo')

03 February, 2009

Of thoughts, platitudes and truths

I came across – Platitude of the Day – after actually having heard Thought for the Day on the Today Programme this morning. (I defect regularly to Terry Wogan or Radio 5 Live when Today gets too earnest or some politician is demanding, again, ‘to make something perfectly clear’.)

I’ll be a frequent visitor to PotD but, on this occasion, I’d challenge the assessment of its jury. Some exposition in the ‘Thought’ could be described as platitudinous; the same could be said of most broadcasts – and blogs. However, Anne Atkins’ core message, that love and care for children is infinitely more important than possessions, hit home because it has the merit of being true.

A loved, well-fed baby held safely in its mother’s or father’s arms doesn’t care whether it is looking up at a rusting corrugated ceiling or a chandelier. It has, for the time being, all it needs. Among the imperatives of parenting – and there are so many – this is one on which we should never give up.

Many ‘yes buts’ come readily to mind, not least those relating to fairness and society’s priorities for children. There are other important truths; but they don't negate the prime importance of the one expressed by Anne Atkins.

Photo: Running through the rain

02 February, 2009

Of snow and fine travel writing

One of thousands of 'gardens in the snow' pictures that will appear on blogs today. No one ever accused me of being original.

Watching cars struggling vainly to get going in the snow reminded me of an incident from Rebecca West's incredible Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Her party was driving through rural Croatia at a time when cars were a rare sight (1930s). Everywhere they went, local people came to the roadside to see the tourists roaring by. However, at one point the car plunged into deep snow and became hopelessly stuck. The local peasants rushed out to help them move the stricken car, while expressing undisguised delight at seeing "the machine make a fool of itself". West recounts how they were quickly helped out of their fix and that the villagers returned to their homes "doubtless to cheer up a horse by telling it what had happened."

Has there ever been more intelligent, more insightful, more beautifully written travel writing (although it's much more than a travelogue) than West's?

(Aargh, I think it was mud, not snow. Anyway...)

30 January, 2009

Winston Churchill - my part in his funeral

Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral took place on this day in 1965. Along with other kids from our youth club, St Andrew's Westminster, I was recruited to sell the Saturday edition of the Daily Express throughout Friday night to the miles of people queuing to pay their last respects to the great man. It was a good deal: I think the paper cost 4d and we received a penny per copy.

During a long, cold night, I sold hundreds of copies and could have sold many more if they had been available. At daylight, I made my way past the crowds lining Fleet Street to call in at the Express building for my ‘commission’. Flush with cash, I enjoyed one the best breakfasts of my life along with print workers in a nearby cafĂ©.

Now for the main event. I took up a great position on the entrance steps of the Daily Telegraph and waited for the funeral procession to pass. I remember the buzz that ran along the crowd and someone saying ‘He’s in the Strand, not long now.’ Time for a bit of a sit down. Alas, a full stomach and weariness from all that walking and calling out ‘Saturday’s Express' combined to send me into a short but deep sleep. When I woke up, the crowds were dispersing. Winnie had been and gone. The bobbing heads of horsemen disappearing up Ludgate Hill were all I saw of the historic procession.

28 January, 2009

First love

As I head fitfully/painfully/joyfully towards finishing my novel about first love in the 1960s, it is delightful and a little dismaying to read Everything We Do by Peter Meinke. However many reasons there may be for writing about first love, Meinke’s poem distils beautifully the motivation for most of them.

Found thanks to my daily sustaining fix from Garrison Keillor’s Writer's Almanac