Archive for August, 2011

La Maison du Lac? It’s my current work in progress, and it starts off something like this:
When a man is first attracted to a woman, it’s not really the woman who draws him, more the recognition of something undiscovered within himself. And what I saw in myself when I looked at Gabrielle that first evening made me wonder, because I thought I’d done with all of that a long time ago. Indeed what I saw in her made me doubt I’d discovered even a fraction of the self I thought by then I knew.

It was my first night at La Maison du Lac, a remote Swiss hotel nestled deep in a densely forested valley, in the foothills of the Alps. I was sitting in the dining room, weary and alone, at the wrong end of a long drive. It was a corner table, tucked away by the kitchen doors, the staff presumably testing my stereotypical English aversion towards making a fuss. But they had misjudged me, and in fact I preferred the invisibility of my position because there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of such a grand dining room, amid twinkling chandeliers, crisp linen table-cloths and glittering silver-ware, sitting there, doing nothing but advertising your solitude.

Anyway, there she was, centre-stage, hemmed in between a pair of frightful old waxworks: namely her parents, Monsieur and Madame Lafayette. Madame Lafayette was one of those jowly old dames who appear permanently displeased, while her husband had the dry, superior air of an old-school academic. Madame Lafayette had just noticed something on her dessert spoon and, with one eyebrow arched in disapproval, was tipping the spoon towards her husband for him to inspect and share in her low opinion of the standards they were having to endure. I caught the word, sale,.. dirty! He shook his head in dutiful dismay. Personally, I have never known a better presented hotel than La Maison, and since it so clearly failed to measure up to their expectations I was led to suppose that nothing ever would.

Gabrielle had the look of a child that night, and she was so quiet, so undemonstrative in her mannerisms, she went unnoticed between her more animated parents. She was pale, perhaps even a little sickly, dressed in an unflattering blouse, and an unfashionable skirt that would have better suited someone of her mother’s age. This was in stark contrast to the Italian girls on the neighbouring table who were dressed, shall we say, less modestly but considerably more in vogue. But like the Italian girls, Gabrielle was hardly a child – she must have been in her late twenties or early thirties, and yet she appeared shrunken, the full bloom of her womanhood arrested, and she had become instead a flower rendered papery thin and transparent for want of sunshine.

The only hint that all was not lost was her hair, which had the colour and the fertile sheen of a freshly opened chestnut. It would have been voluminous, I thought, except for now it was severely fastened up. Surely if there was any spirit left in Gabrielle, it had fled her body years ago, and resided now exclusively in those lovely chestnut tresses.

Her eyes never left the table – not even when her parents spoke to her, and I noticed Madame Lafayette had the habit of fussing with Gabrielle’s table setting, as if the girl could not be trusted to leave things tidy. I found this deeply irritating, though I don’t know why because these people were nothing to me. All the same I found myself wondering how she managed to bear it all so patiently.

After dinner I watched as she left the dining room, noting how she walked with a pronounced stoop, as if for ever wary of low ceilings, that she was embarrassed by her height, afraid to rise up to the proud stature of which she was surely capable. Beneath the rather ill fitting clothes however, and her stilted gait, I’m ashamed to say I joined the dots, so to speak, and reconstructed the outline of an attractive figure, generously curved,… and curiously desirable.

“Lovely isn’t she?”


A white suited man was standing by my table now. It was all I could do to avoid uttering a startled gasp. This was Herr Gruber – the owner of La Maison, and himself something of an enigma. He spoke quietly so as not to draw attention to my embarrassing voyeurism, and his expression seemed also genuinely appreciative of Gabrielle’s looks. I smiled to cover my blushes, and he asked if he could join me. I nodded my assent, and he sat down.

Then it goes on for another hundred and forty thousand words,….
I’ve been unhappy all year about the ending. It simply wasn’t right. The characters were telling me I was stretching credulity too much, even for a fantasy novel. So, I decided to have a break from it. I backed it up to my iPad at the end of July, so I could glance at it while I was away on holiday – without having to lug the laptop with me – I mean I take the iPad everywhere – but I never did anything with it. After my holidays, I returned to the master copy on the laptop and began picking up the threads.  Suddenly, I began to feel as if I was making way with it. It was as if the characters felt rested from having had a break, and all sorts of new ideas were popping into my head. It was great. It was the best I’d felt about the story since those opening paragraphs were written, getting on for eighteen months ago.
During the latter stages of drafting, when I’m starting to think about formatting, I use Open Office for the word processing of my stories. Open Office has served me well for years, and I’m not blaming it for what happened here – I think the memory card I use had become dislodged or something –  I still don’t know for sure what happened  – but I came to save my work and ended up corrupting my only working copy. The file was irretrievable. Lost. Screwed. Two years of work, gone. I stared at the screen for ten long minutes, thinking about it. I’ve lost chapters before, but never the whole damned work, and La Maison’s something I’ve been wrestling with for so long now. I’d grown to love the characters, the scenario – it was just the ending I couldn’t figure out – except I really thought I was onto it this time. But now it was all gone. I had back-up copies, of a sort, but when I dug them out, even the most recent were months old, and so many revisions had gone by since then, it wasn’t the same story at all.
The ‘phone rang. I didn’t want to answer it because I’d just lost something very important and deeply personal, and I didn’t want anyone nagging me, or I feared I’d snap and they wouldn’t understand my anger, that Michael’s little hobby could possibly be so important. The ‘phone rang off and still I sat there, unmoving. Nothing else mattered. But it was gone. I couldn’t bring it back! All those moments, lost “like tears in rain” (name that movie anyone?). I thought about attachment – ironically my characters had been discussing it just before that current version of themselves had vanished into oblivion – the impermanence of things and the pointlessness of becoming attached to ephermera. Well, here was an object lesson on attachment. I was going to have to be philosophical about this, and let it go.
When I finally switched the laptop off, I’d decided on a plan. La Maison would definitely be finished, but I was going to have to pick it up from one of those really old back-ups, except I couldn’t do it right away. I was too close to the pristine version of the story I’d just lost. I had to let it fade – give it a couple of months – six months maybe –  then, if I had the heart, pick up the threads from a much earlier time and maybe I’d wonder then what all the fuss was about.
I went out into the garden and sat down. It was a lovely day, the lawn was looking the best it had done all year. Sure I would get over this, I thought, and I was only half pretending that I meant it. I would learn from it, and as my Grandmother used to say: the are worse losses at sea. Sure – it would be okay. I mean, I wasn’t exactly making a living at it was I? There was no publisher breathing down my neck for it. I was writing it for myself – and only when I’d done with it did anyone else get a look at it, so what did it matter if I’d just lost it? Of course it mattered a lot to me. As for the muse, well, she can be a bit weird. She’d done her bit – she’d given it to me once and didn’t seem to care what I did with it after that. Give it away, publish it, lose it, delete it – it was all the same to her.
I needed a distraction – maybe a walk or catch up on some current affairs. I sought the iPad and the BBC app, but before I clicked it – I remembered,… the iPad backup of La Maison was only about ten days old! And of those ten days, I’d only worked on it for five at the most. Five days. I could catch that up in no time!
I was saved! Sort of.
The lesson?
Back it up. Every day!

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A Literary Soiree?

I was driving home last night, having picked up number two son from a sleepover at a friends house, when I noticed a poster in a pub-window advertising a talk by one of my favourite writers – let’s call him Patrick. It was a coincidence, because only the day before I’d been on Amazon and noticed he was taking pre-orders for his latest title, and suddenly there he was, giving a talk in my home village – a place that’s not exactly renowned for being an epicentre of philosophical debate on the meaning of life. What’s more, the talk was to take place that very evening!

What? A quick glance at the clock on the dashboard told me I just had time to drop number two son off at home, then dash back to the pub. And dash back I did.

The function room was full when I arrived, and I was worried I’d left it too late, that I wouldn’t find a seat. I could see they were a  mixed bunch, mainly young – many of them in fancy dress – some as hobbits, some like wizards, a weird cross between a Tolkein and a JK Rowling appreciation society and not at all what I’d been expecting. Had I got the right room? Had I got the right writer?

I was ready to move on when a woman caught my eye. She was tall, slender, the kind of woman who looks “official” and “in charge”, no matter where she is or what she’s wearing, which in this case was a rather crumpled navy-blue dress with a matching cardigan. Her hair was long, a mixture of dark and steel-grey. She was in her late fifties, early sixties, I guessed and reminded me of a stereotypical upper class colonial wife, or  a stern headmistress. She seemed to read my mind, sensed my embarrassment, and, perhaps reluctant to let me escape, she came over and invited me to sit down.

The current crowd were leaving, she explained – Patrick already having given one talk. His next would be starting in half an hour – he’d just gone for a drink, she said, and assured me the next crowd would be more my sort. What sort that was, I was left to wonder – more sober and tweed jacketed, perhaps?

So,… feeling a little better, now, I took the seat she offered me, right on the front row, and began to flip through the booklets and papers she’d also given me regarding Patrick’s up and coming new book, which I noted was a verbatim copy of the blurb I’d read on Amazon. I liked the woman. She came across as a bit bossy, but there was also something warm and empathic about her that I couldn’t help but respond to. Meanwhile I was looking forward to seeing Patrick in the flesh, and hearing him speak, but I was also nervous in case I felt let down. It’s not every day you get to meet your literary heroes, and Patrick was a big hero.

The crowd of hobbits and Harry Potters had largely dispersed and the hubbub fell to a more contemplative hush. No one else had thus far turned up to join me, so I sat alone, feeling conspicuous now while glancing at my watch with increasing anxiety. I’d told the good lady Graeme I’d be home for half-past ten, but by this rate the talk wasn’t even going to have started by then. It was also a weekday night and I had work in the morning.

The woman came back and apologised for the delay. There’d been a mix up with some other group claiming they’d booked the room for that evening, but they’d realised their mistake now, and Patrick’s talk could go ahead as planned. A few other fans eventually found their way into the function room, so I no longer felt stupid on my own. Then the woman came and sat beside me, making me feel quite important, and we had a brief chat about Patrick and his work. She knew him very well, having been a fan for many years, and it was she who’d managed to persuade him to give a talk in the village. She’d lived there all her life, and I was puzzled I’d not met her before.

When she asked my name I told her it was Michael Graeme – my pen name and not the name of my primary personality. It wasn’t that I was “pretending” to be a writer myself to impress her – I was merely being cautious with my identity, besides hardly anyone knew of Michael Graeme.  Straight away though, she asked me if I was Michael Graeme “the fiction writer and blogger”. Astonished, I said I was, and she said she knew my work, and it surprised me, not only that she knew it but that she didn’t seem surprised to meet me. I thought she was just being polite, but she actually seemed to have read some of my books, and said that a lot of my later stuff seemed to have been influenced by Patrick’s work. I told her it was true, that I respected his work very much. I couldn’t help it – I was flattered, and as the woman smiled at me, I felt a blossoming of kinship between us.

When Patrick appeared, he looked just like his publicity photo – a genial, balding  Irishman with a softly lilting accent. He smiled at the polite applause generated by his much anticipated arrival,  and he cracked a few self deprecating jokes by way of an opener. Then he began to talk.

I should say that Patrick’s writing reads like blank poetic verse. It’s rhythmic and as beguiling as the song of a Celtic bard, or like the words of fairies, so that you cannot help but agree with everything he says. His talk though, was different. With the opening jokes out of the way, he began a long, rambling introduction with one tangential aside after the other. He also seemed nervous – his voice faltering, a faint tremble in it, as if he were unused to public speaking, and had suddenly been got up in front of Wembley Stadium. He posed many questions, but came to the point of none of them, and I wondered if he’d had one pint too many at the bar.

Then, as if he realised he was waffling, he invited us to follow him outside. There were only half a dozen of us, so it was no big deal, and we followed happily. He led us into the courtyard beside the pub, like a tour-guide and his expression seemed to promise the revelation we each sought, if only we could be patient. Then he walked through a door into a walled garden. The sun was setting now and a single shaft of light had caught the garden, making it glow in striking contrast to the sombre brick and stonework that made up the rest of the scene. Patrick’s face was bathed in a golden glow as he walked into the garden, and I could see that he’d been blessed with something as his genial features took on a look of innocent rapture.

As we were about to follow him through the door, an old woman appeared, blocking our way and said we couldn’t come in, because we were “too religious” – or maybe it was that we weren’t religious enough? I forget which, but it was something to do with religion, anyway. This surprised me, but what surprised me even more was the realisation  that I was dreaming the whole thing.

Then it was 7:00 am, the alarm clock about five minutes away from going off. I rose, my mind still fresh with vivid memories of a memorable literary soiree, that had never actually taken place. It was a dream that’s just begging for analysis, but I’ve resisted the temptation, reluctant to spoil its still-delicious after-taste by doggedly de-constructing it.

I’ve ordered Patrick’s book now  – and I’m looking forward to reading it.

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Mostly Harmless?

Looking at the world’s press at the moment you might have the impression the UK is sliding into violent anarchy. To be sure the scenes we’ve witnessed recently have been very ugly indeed, but our citys are calm now, all the broken glass has been swept up, and I’d like to reassure anyone planning a trip here that 99.9% of the country was unaffected, except for being totally bewildered of course.

This is not to dismiss the seriousness of what happened. We saw mayhem in London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, four of the biggest cities in England, on a scale unlike anything we’ve witnessed before. History suggests it takes a lot to push the English to riot and whenever it’s happened before there’s always been a clear focus, a particular grievance, usually political, that boils over into confrontation with the police. In short, we’ve had broken windows and burning cars before on the streets of British cities, but the disturbing difference this time was the degree of frenzied looting that accompanied the violence.

The detailed analysis has now begun, committees of learned men and women being appointed to ponder the evidence at length. However,  knee-jerk pundits are already blaming the cause on everything from poor parenting to the abolition of national service – that the moral backbone of our society has somehow collapsed, presumably  because we don’t beat our children any more. This is the right-of-centre view. Meanwhile the pundits left-of-centre blame the penny-pinching politics of the other lot  for creating a riot-prone “underclass” devoid of any stake in a society.

Certainly what my TV screen showed me would suggest that a part of society is indeed dangerously out of control. Aside from the wanton looting of businesses, I saw cars being driven at speed with the deliberate intention of killing people, like in a crazy super-violent video game where there’s no need to think about the consequences because it’s only a game and you’re bound to get away with it.

Those partaking of these darkly sinister games seem to have forgotten however that no matter where you are in any town or city in the UK these days, you’re going to be on CCTV. Consequently about two and a half thousand miscreants have already been arrested and processed through the courts, with no doubt many others to come, their faces etched for all time in our collective digital memory. Those featured leaving the courts in the press and on TV have been largely young and poor, their inarticulate rantings to provocative journalists peppered with expletives, and seemingly precious little remorse. Meanwhile the genteel classes raise their eyebrows in despair and dream of a mythical England long ago, circa 1950 – one that never existed.

Many of those involved were indeed heartbreakingly  young, both black and white, some not even teenagers. They’re being painted already as a generation lost to “street culture” and “gang mentality”, a symbol of everything that’s wrong with society. But this wasn’t the whole story – not all those arrested were teen-gangsters. Some were middle class adults, with professional jobs.

Our ruling politicians have described it as an outbreak of “simple criminality”. I humbly beg to differ for there’s surely nothing “simple” about lawless behaviour perpetrated on this scale? Other pundits describe it in more philosophical terms as a long overdue backlash against the consumer society, against the greed of a nefarious plutocracy, about the institutionalised corruption of the political classes and the apparatchiks – that this as much as anything is a symbol of what’s gone wrong with society. A fair and equitable society, they say, with a knowing shake of the head, is one that does not riot. While the die hard romantics would like this to be true, I fear it’s an equally simplistic analysis.

My own feelings, as an unrepentant country-boy, who never made the transition to the big-city, are that cities have always been dodgy places. If you park your car in one, there’s a greater chance of it getting stolen or vandalised than if you park it in the countryside. Equally you’ve a greater chance of having your house broken into and defiled by muppets. Why? There are simply more people in the cities, and therefore proportionally more wrong-uns. There’s also a greater potential for those wrong-uns on occasion to get together in an ad-hoc attack on “society”. There’s a spark, and then the reaction of a small group goes viral – aided by social networking tools and mobile ‘phones. And before you know it you’ve got whole streets on fire, and little boys on bikes with encrypted Blackberry’s, their caps set at jaunty angles, apparently coordinating pitched battles against the over-stretched forces of law and order.

Even a provincial town can be a rowdy place of an evening when the pubs and clubs are spilling out. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the streets of our cities, late on a Saturday night or early Sunday morning can present to the unwary a scene of squalid madness of Hogarthian proportions  –  and that’s just people getting drunk and having a good time. God help us if they should ever turn angry while they’re sober.

I’ve been working for thirty five years, and maybe I’m a skinflint, but I’ve baulked at the cost of owning and running a Blackberry, so there are clearly plenty of things I don’t understand about my society, and I feel hopelessly inadequate when it comes to offering solutions to its ills. I’m just a guy standing on the sidelines, glad to be living in a rural village, far away from the big city. But if you’re outside of the UK and wondering what’s going on, I assure you we remain a mostly harmless people. We’re open for business as usual and, if you’re friendly to us, we welcome you.

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