Archive for October, 2014

wet leafThe day dissolves to a silver mist,
Lighter than air,
Settling softly
Among bare branches,
Where minuscule spheroids swell,
Coalescing to a smug fatness.
Teardrops of crystal,
Transparent berries among the black thorns,
Rich yield of cold nourishment,
Hanging motionless in a mist,
Still drifting,
Thin as ghosts,
Aimless as smoke,
From dying embers.

A lone leaf falls.


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tennerSimple answer: no, not under any circumstances. You must never pay a publisher anything, not for reading, editing, polishing, publishing, distributing or promoting your book.


There’s a suggestion these days this is rather old fashioned advice, like not wearing a tank-top to the office, or mixing your drinks, that the times have changed with all this online whizz-bang stuff and surely an inexperienced author would benefit from some “paid” services in shining up their manuscript in order to attract a publisher. But actually things haven’t changed at all. Whether we are publishing electronically or on paper, if it’s 2015, or 1915, publishers who ask writers for money are vanity publishers; they are predators, they are the bogeymen on the shady periphery of the writing world. Our grandmothers terrified us as children with cautionary tales of their sneaky antics. They are like big cats stalking their prey, always on the lookout for the lame author on the periphery of the herd, sick and burning up with the fever of self-delusion that their book is going to change the world, if they could only get it out there.

They praise him, seduce him, convince him of their faith in his mastery of the craft, convince him of his inevitable success for only a small up front investment. So the author hands his money over, and falls into the machine that will eventually mince his self worth to sorry shreds, and he will come out the other end as unknown and as unpublished as before. If in doubt, follow the money – not the promise of it tomorrow but where it’s going today, then ask who gains, who loses? If it’s you who’s writing the cheque, then it’s you my friend. You lose.

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece on one such online “publisher”, Lulu.com. They offer print on demand services for free but with some extra paid services like editing and promotional work. I was complimentary about the quality of Lulu’s printed product, but keen to steer would-be authors away from those tantalisingly glossy paid services, because you just know it’s going to go wrong. The books I had from them in the early days were the equal, visually at least, of any commercial paperback. But this was all a long time ago and I’ve moved on. Those books went to the charity shop and I was grateful they took them. As for paid editing and distribution services – no thanks. Yet authors comment on that piece time and again, telling me how they handed over money and received little or nothing in return. I feel desperately sorry for them, and understand their dilemma.

The fire that ignites a piece of work does not die when the work is finished. We want to change the world with it, we want readers to purr with delight at the run of our prose, and the critics to trumpet in adulation at the planet-like proportions of our intellect, and the laser precision of our insight. And we want the opposite sex to fall at our feet when they learn they are in the presence of a published author. But really this is very small minded, and we have to get over it. There are a lot of writers out there, all of them better than us, and no one’s heard of them either. As for changing the world, really, no one cares that much about anything, least of all as much as you care about it.

As I write this, it’s going up for midnight on a Saturday night, and I don’t know why I’m writing it, or for whom. I had decided blogging about writing, was an increasingly fallow tag, and I wouldn’t do it any more as there are far more interesting topics to write about. I suppose the real topic here is more the perennial egoic delusion of our self worth, and all the dangers that lie therein, that it will divest us of our dignity, render us tender prey to the publishing troll. But I’m bursting with an opinion on this tonight, and bloggers don’t need publishers in order to find listeners.

So if you’re a writer, unpublished but trying hard, struggling in the storm tossed waves to make a difference, do not think you can make a difference by paying someone to get you published. A real publisher takes a chance on an author, asks for nothing up front and pays them, usually, and usually not much to begin with. The problem is there are so many of us writing, and only a small paid-publishing trough. How we get our snouts in it has always been a mystery, but we do not get ahead by listening to the siren voices of the bogeymen. That’s how we get taken to the cleaners.

Don’t do it.


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av3I keep getting messages from Facebook telling me how so much has been going on recently I have the impression that if I miss checking up even for a day the world will have moved on beyond all hope of my ever catching up with it. But although Michael Graeme does have a Facebook account, he doesn’t use it because, well, he feels there’s an existential danger in spending one’s life simply recording one’s life – that eventually all we’ll have to record is the fact we’re recording we’re recording, ad infinitum. It’s at that point, he thinks, the entire human race will disappear into a self-created singularity.

It’s also a factor that beyond the keyboard, Michael Graeme doesn’t have a recordable life at all, at least not one that’s easily disentangled from that of his primary personality, who is by contrast too reticent to have his innards plastered all over the Internet. If I Google my real self, I appear once in a blurry photograph taken years ago at a Tai Chi retreat, and even that’s more exposure than I’m happy with. Google Michael Graeme however and he’s all over the place with his books and his stories and his blog-blatherings. But I’m careful the one should not be identifiable as the alter-ego of the other, which I admit is a bit schizophrenic, and certainly isn’t the way authors usually go about promoting themselves.

That said, my admittedly fragile cover may have been blown. We had the decorators in this week and one of them was asking my wife about me – where I worked and what I did in my spare time. Oh, he writes, she said, then produced an old Lulu copy of The Lavender and the Rose to show him. So, what’s it about, he asked? I dunno, she said: I’ve never read it.

I felt uncomfortable, that some real life person might know where Michael Graeme lives, that he might tell others who I am. Hey, I was at this house today and you know what? The guy who lives there writes stories?

But so what? Michael Graeme’s not exactly a household name, and I’m not expecting a press pack to descend on our doorstep should I find myself widely “outed” as the author of that particular tome – or any other for that matter. Why then be so protective about Michael Graeme’s anonymity? After all he’s not that much different to me; he drives the same car, lives in the same house, likes visiting the same places. He even thinks the same thoughts as me, so why not let him simply be me?

Well, where he differs, fundamentally, is in the way he escapes my primary personality’s admittedly neurotic belief he must say, do, think, and conform to a set of obligations that are necessary for face to face interpersonal, professional and societal harmony. Or in plainer words I’m interested in a lot of stuff that is of no use whatsoever to a suburban life, and which never comes up in conversation with the people I know. So I give all that stuff to Michael Graeme, who is better placed to make use of it than I am.

There was an interesting case a little while ago about a blog written by a Lancashire Copper called Nightjack. It was an expose of police work that revealed policemen very much as human beings doing a difficult job, while slowly being buried under the crushing weight of bureaucracy and political interference. That said its honesty and its engaging style probably did the service a lot of good on the public relations front. Officially though Nightjack was skating on thin ice; the blog although anonymised and semi-fictional, was a bit like keeping a diary on active service in wartime – it happens but its frowned upon and you’re for it if you get caught. Then the press – bless them – decided they had a public duty to “out” the identity of Nightjack, which they did by means both fair and foul. It got them a bit of a story. It also got Nightjack keel-hauled, and the blog taken down – but not before it managed to win the Orwell Prize for political blogging.

Was public interest served by outing Nightjack? I think not. I have no problem with anyone telling it like it is, or like they see it, and I wish more would do it, and if that needs to be under the cover of an anonymous blog, then so be it. It’s only by getting behind the serenely smiling mask of public relations we see a picture approaching anything like that of the real world. Policing, the NHS, Teaching, Mental Health Services – these are vital institutions, the very bedrock of our society and we get a very different impression of these things from the “off-record” front lines than we do from the “on-record” headlines.

Yes, I know there’s a delicate balance between blogging anonymously for honest means, to inform or enlighten, or blow the whistle, and doing it to deceive or to defame, or to suit one’s own dubious agenda. There was a popular and very touching blog some years ago apparently written by a young Lesbian woman living in Syria, a place where the persecution of gays is severe to say the least. It turned out though she was actually an American guy living in Scotland who’d simply made the whole thing up. I forget his reasons now, but this one left a bad taste and upset  lot of people. It also presents a good counter-argument for why all anonymous bloggers should crash and burn eventually.

Including me.

We all deceive. We all pick our noses while pretending to others we do not. We do not present the same face to the boss we present to our friends. And even among our friends that mask will change, so we become two faced, or even three or four faced. We can be more truthful to a stranger, more truthful to the unknown reader, than the reader we know, and who we must rub along with in real life. If I wrote as myself, for readers I know, I fear I would have very little to say to them – as little as I do in real life.

Give a man a mask though, said Wilde, and he will tell the truth.

Or at least in so far as he sees it.


Graeme out.

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There’s this theory, supported even by some respectable quantum physicists, that if our lives end suddenly in one reality, then our consciousness reappears in another reality where our lives do not end – we squeak through, we live to fight another day. In one reality, the bullet strikes deep to the heart, strikes us down – in the other, it misses and we live on.

If this is so, then I may be reporting to you from another reality, my end having come on the B5246 Rufford Road, on Saturday with the Mazda flipping off the kerb and crashing through a hedge to land on top of me – either that or it was a head on collision at a closing speed of a hundred miles an hour – thirty five of them being mine, the rest belonging to the other guy.

Saturday was a lovely day, and I’d taken the car out for a run. I’ve been enjoying the feel of the air all summer, pottering about with the top down, but the opportunities are becoming sparse now as winter approaches and the light sinks. There’s a nice twisty-turney bit of road coming out of Hilldale, as you head out across the moss towards Rufford. It’s a beautiful bit of the run, but you need to be cautious here. The limit is 40, but 35 feels safer.

Country lanes like this are dangerous, being frequented by drivers who like to open their cars up a bit. You need to watch out for them, factor them in somehow, but what you can’t mitigate against is the other guy coming at you on the wrong side of the road, out of control. My memory is blurred, but my son tells me it was a black Seat. He’d lost it on the bend. There was little I could do but hit the brakes.

The road must have been a little wet, because I felt the Mazda shimmy towards the kerb. We were cornering sharp right, heading down-hill, so this was to be expected. It took a nudge of the steering to catch up with her, traction was restored and we avoided clipping the kerb. Now, either we turned to smoke at this point and that Seat passed right through us, or our little side-shuffle bought us sufficient margin to escape by the skin of our teeth. The next thing I remember is a glance in the mirror to see the Seat careening up the hill, still on the wrong side of the road. We were very lucky. I’ve seen some crazy stuff on the roads this year, but this was the closest we’d come to a direct hit, and of course, it was personal.

My son reminded me that at least we had it all on dashcam, that it would be a good idea to post our near miss on Youtube – one of those “Look at this idiot” types of thing. I intended doing just that, also linking to it from this blog piece, but I’d been playing about with the dashcam that morning. I’d discovered it can record in time-lapse mode and I’d had it on a tripod shooting movements of clouds over the back garden. One frame every five seconds makes for some interesting, dramatic, and very beautiful footage of clouds. And guess what: I’d forgotten to reset the camera, and the whole near-miss incident took place between frames. It was as if it had never been.

Life can end pointlessly at any moment, even it seems between the frames. We blink out and the world does not notice. Most of us get by ignoring this fact, pretending it isn’t so, but the doctors and nurses in our A+E departments, also firemen and traffic cops, are reminded of it every day. I don’t know how survivable that impact would have been, even with airbags and modern crumple-zone technology. Imagine driving into a concrete wall at a hundred miles an hour, and you tell me.

I remember coming to grief on that same stretch of road on November 9th 1988, a bad night, a wet night, driving my fiance out to my mother’s 60th birthday dinner. I was driving an old Volvo 340 in those days. A couple of boy racers came at me like a torpedo in their Vauxhall Nova. They’d lost control on the bend – actually they didn’t see the bend at all and came straight across the road, into me. They took out the offside wing, folded the wheel right under the car. The front of the Nova was flattened from grille to bulkhead, the engine lying in a pool of its own oil in the road, but we all survived. Even the Volvo lived to fight another day, but a split second later and that Nova would have piled into my door, and me with it.

Or maybe that’s exactly what happened. And equally, maybe there’s an old MX5 still in a ditch by the Rufford road this morning, or crumpled in the hedge – a Seat impaled upon its bonnet, the pair of them locked in deadly embrace, my son and I now numbering among the A+E statistics.

I shudder. Someone walking over my grave. To whichever watchful Daemon had our backs on Saturday, I offer my thanks.

Drive carefully.


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persephoneMonday morning black as death,
First rain in ages pours as if from taps
Through gaps in gutters,
Baked long in the summer dry.

Cold wind at my elbow
Begs with menace.
She is gone, she is gone,
He cries.

There’s glee in that cracked old grin,
Glee as old as sin,
And he dances, kicks the bottles,
And the bins,
Sends them skittering.

His wizened hand, clawed,
Tugs my coat for coin,
And gloats his wicked work to see,
This awful morn,
The taking of my Persephone.

My summer love, my faery Queen,
My comfort and my rest,
Turned out into this foetid dawn.
Torn clouds, the ragged weeds,
In which she’s dressed.

Where is her beauty now?
He brays.
Her dance of summer all disarrayed,
Her flowers flattened in the dirt.
Now, he says, now you’ll pay,
And dance more to my funeral dirge.

Winter darkness drawing in,
He crows how she must once more
Make her bed with him.
His hands, cold ice and vile to touch.
Yet heed me well, I know this much:
She will not smile his joy to see,
Not like she has smiled for me.

So be gone, beggar, from my door,
Do your worst,
Let wild wind roar, and river burst,
Let oak tree creak,
And chimney moan,
And each day turn me out from home,
To sit in stagnant traffic washed,
By filthy winter storm.

And I shall remember the lingering kiss,
The loving touch, and how each gift,
With summer grace she showed.
A jewel each, a glassy bead,
All sunshine filled, and each the seed
Of her return to sow.


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girl reading charles-edward-peruginiBy the time I started school in 1964, they’d stopped making us memorise poems. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad, or even what the point of it was, but they were debating it on the radio this morning – it being National Poetry Day today – so I’ve been wondering about it. They’d also stopped making us learn our times tables too, but that’s something I definitely regret because having those multiples to hand when doing much bigger calculations would be a very useful thing. But poems? What use are they?

My mother could recite Rossetti’s “Uphill”, which she’d learned at school, in the 1920’s – well she could remember one line of it: “Does the road wind uphill all the way?” It would most often come back to her, when we were walking up a hill, and thus it became fondly remembered by us all, this one line of Rossetti. We had the priest read the full version at her funeral. He read it beautifully, but then it is a deeply spiritual poem.

I would read Blake’s Tyger to my children at bedtimes when we’d run out of stories, and I soon had it off by heart, but then they grew up, and now all I can remember is the first verse:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry.

My children can’t even remember me reciting it to them!

It was the same with de la Mare’s strange, haunting poem “The Listeners”, the only bit of which I remember now is how the silence surged softly backwards, yet this does not prevent the mood and the mystery of the whole from lingering in the shadows of the unconscious.

More recently I memorised William Henry Davies’ “Leasure” – you know, the one that goes: “What life is this if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” That stuck for a bit, but as with Blake and de la Mare, it eventually leaked away as most things do when one no longer has any use for them. Spurious lines still emerge at odd moments – something about squirrels hiding their nuts in grass. Then there’s the beautiful line that speaks of “streams full of stars like skies at night“. I didn’t understand that bit at the time, thought there might be something metaphysical about it. Then I saw a stream, black as midnight and with the sunshine sparkling like little stars in it.

Learning by rote as a child must exercise a less volatile kind of memory. Better to start young then, while the mind is still plastic. Or it could just be that some of us are better at remembering than others. And memory is such a peculiar thing. I can remember the registration numbers of cars I drove thirty years ago, but none from the past decade, including the car I’m driving now. I can recite Pi to nine decimal places, 3.141592654, being used to seeing it, I suppose, on a scientific calculator, and trigonometry being among the tools of my daytime trade. But later attempts, by use of memory tricks, to get it to a hundred places were successful for only a short period, because who needs Pi to a hundred places?

What about poems, then? Do we really need them leaping up at us from every turn? Well, it depends on the poem, I suppose. Judging by the popping up of my own half remembered snippets, there is something beautiful and curiously apposite about their materialisation. I suspect as a child though, I would not have appreciated being hammered over the head with them. If we think of the Bronte’s more funereal verses, it’s only later, and somewhat abraded by life, we come to feel their brooding mystery deep in the gut:

Emily’s “Stanzas”, strikes a deep chord with me, which is perhaps why I can retrieve more of it from memory than other poems:

Often Rebuked, yet always back returning,
To those first feelings that were born in me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning,
For idle dreams of things that cannot be.

Today I shall seek not the shadowy places.
Their unsustaining vastness waxes drear,
And visions rising legion after legion,
Brings the unreal world too strangely near,…

It tends to bubble up when I’m out where the ferny flocks are feeding, also where the wild wind blows on the mountain side. I know what she was feeling when she wrote it, because I’ve felt it too, and we are good friends now, she and I.

Victorian authors were good at plucking lines of poetry from memory to illustrate their prose. The essays in Blackwood’s magazine are peppered with examples. To be sure, a line or two of poetry can capture a flicker of feeling like nothing else, and that’s a useful thing to be able to call upon for emphasis, but one doesn’t come across it very often in today’s media. It may be that it’s considered a little pompous now, displaying one’s cultured learning on the page. And nobody likes a smart arse, or so we’re told. Better to act a bit numb.

For me, poetry is more of a personal journey and it would have devalued it, I think, to have it defined by a handful of poems I was made to memorise at school, because they were considered important at the time. Again it depends on the poem, and the teacher. But more likely I think I would not have seen the point, indeed I might even have been poisoned against the whole idea to have some screaming berserker forcing them upon me, and no doubt turning purple at my lapses of memory upon recitation.

But that’s just me.

It’s better I think to be unafraid to simply read poetry and see what speaks to you. Better also to be unashamed to write a little poetry too. It does not matter if we have not learned at the teacher’s knee, or that we feel naked without the necessary SparkNotes. Let the poetry live and be a part of your life, or it becomes a dead thing. And worthless.

I have only recently discovered Seamus Heaney, and wonder how I could have avoided his work for so long, considering the immediate impact it has had upon me. But in a sense it does not matter when we come to the more influential poets of the age – or even if we come to them at all – and we should of course ignore all the scornful, learned voices pointing out our dearth of knowledge of the bardic arts, for if we are not studying poetry in order to gain a degree, we are most likely exploring it more as the background music to our lives. And that’s a personal journey, none of anyone’s business but one’s own. For that it is not the poems on the prescribed list that are important, the poems we are made to memorise, or the ones to be picked apart like an impaled frog’s innards. The truly important poems are those that are memorable to us, personally – in whole or part – the poems that strike a chord, even though we might not understand them to the satisfaction of an examiner of English Literature.

So I don’t think it was a great loss that I was not made to memorise poetry at school. It certainly has not killed the love of poetry in me now.

Oh, but how I wish I’d been force-fed those times tables!

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