Archive for March, 2016

ambulance7-240x181I wonder how much we take our National Health Service for granted? Recently, I fell foul of a minor ear infection, so,.. phone call to my GP’s surgery, appointment that same evening, bottle of drops on prescription, infection gone in a few days. No work-days lost to feeling ill and with an ear the size of a balloon, like last time when I left it too late. Success? Well yes, absolutely, minor treatable ailments are dealt with efficiently and mostly for free, but things are far from rosy with the NHS.

I had another brush with it over the Easter weekend, this time not so positive, accompanying someone suffering from sudden and severe stomach pains to the A+E department. There being no GP cover over the weekend, I tried the national 111 service for advice, only to find it permanently engaged – not what you want when someone is writhing in agony beside you. I tried several times, concluded the service was useless. So I tried NHS online instead which took me through a question and answer of the symptoms and it said we should go to A+E, so off we went.

At A+E I discovered an overpressed and hopelessly outnumbered staff, holding at bay a waiting room of walking wounded – the limping, the swollen, the bleeding, the moaning, the coughing and the wheezing,… you can imagine.

Two hours of abdominal agony later, while buttock shuffling on bum numbing hard plastic chairs, an apologetic nurse explained the average waiting time was now six hours. This was not the wait for treatment, not the wait for my companion to be told he had a burst appendix, or reassured it was only trapped wind. This was the wait for assessment, for prioritisation, for triage. The wait for actual treatment could be another six hours. It was by then four pm and the system had collapsed. My companion’s face fell open in disbelief. How could he wait that long and in such pain? Well, we had no choice.

Upon hearing this news half the room cleared, suggesting many who use A+E departments don’t really need to be there, but that’s another story. My companion insisted he was in need of medical attention, and I didn’t blame him, so we held on. By now a softer seat had been vacated, allowing a more comfortable slump into semi-comatose agony. In the opposite corner sat a man who had been hit in the face with a three by two, literally quite a bruiser, beside him another with his arm in a make-shift sling after breaking up a separate bout of fisticuffs. They swapped stories with ribald humour. In the hallway stood a convict handcuffed to a Prison Officer.

Time passed. No names were called. I wondered if there’d been a terrible accident somewhere, a mass shooting, a massive motorway pile-up to bring on such a crisis. But it was just a regular Easter Saturday in A+E with no staff. A possible twelve hour wait? I wondered what state I would be in by six am tomorrow morning, let alone my ailing companion. Would his wait for an examination be shortened if he collapsed unconscious, rolled onto the floor? Dare I suggest it? Would anyone even notice?

He did not collapse. We waited another hour, then my companion began to feel a little better, well enough at least to walk slowly to the reception desk. There he withdrew his name and we went home, either to recover more comfortably in bed, he said, or die there in peace. I’m glad to report he was pretty much recovered by morning.

Most of us, fortunately, do not spend much time in hospitals and are therefore shielded from the current state of the A+E crisis. It’s plain they are cash starved, undermanned and struggling, being readied for privatisation. Given the overarching plutocratic trend in western politics, this seems inevitable, perhaps even overdue. Perhaps an Easter Saturday in A+E paints an exaggerated picture, but I am left with the indelible impression it may already be too late to do anything about it.

My children will leave university with £40,000 of debt, virtue of another crisis, and they will inherit a national healthcare system in such turmoil as to be useless to the point that even the evil of privatisation, of healthcare for profit, will seem the only viable solution to its ills. Our country is actually very wealthy, about 7.2 trillion according to the office for national statistics, and growing so it puzzles me the constant harking on about how much we have to cut pubic funding in order to save our skins, and how the vast majority of us are a lot worse off than we were. The middle classes are disappearing with the outsourcing of their traditional jobs, and the working class is losing its safety net while the moneyed minority pocket the nation’s wealth and drive about in motor cars worth more than my retirement pot. It gives one pause.

Driving to work this morning there was a car spun off the motorway, landing on its roof, an ordinary family saloon, glass everywhere. A little distance away was a bent Mercedes of the swanky company executive variety. A haze of blue lights surrounded them in a pouring rain that was streaked with snow – a bad morning for an accident. An ambulance made its way through traffic, doing its best against an ebbing tide. Pray God I thought, we never reach the stage were the paramedics want a swipe of your plastic first before they’ll touch you, and where the guy in the Mercedes gets priority because he has a gold health card in his wallet. Then I remembered the despair of an overwhelmed A+E on Saturday and hoped they were more fully staffed this morning. Rich or poor, when crisis hits, we all need the NHS.

So do be careful out there because the last thing you need in the current climate is to end up in A+E.

[Update May 2016 – the A+E department closed a few weeks after I wrote this. There is currently no indication when or if it will ever open again.]

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vinegarSocial media can enhance human interaction, it can inform, connect, communicate to a degree previously unimaginable. It can also amplify the most shallow depths and allude to meaning where there is none. It can delude and degrade the experience of life, so we must always ask ourselves the question: what is a thing for? What good is it? What harm can it do?

Our real lives are incidental to our dreams. My dreams are a vignette of my aspirations; my romantic inclinations and my work as a writer. My real life, beyond the vignette, is more the realm of cold water, hairy bath-plugs, washing up, and shirts that need ironing.

But isolated counter-images are highly emotive. They interrupt the mundane, they resonate, hold back the blink reflex for a moment while we freeze-frame and take note – a pattern, a combination of colours, or contrast, a shape,… these things are mysterious. We want to capture them, to preserve them in a jar and Instagram is that jar.

But given the means of recording those freeze frames, of presenting them, this does not prevent us from dishonesty by omission. We self edit, and thereby create an idealised life stream in order to impress the imaginary “other” with how cool, how stylish that life is, entirely void of the mundane. It is a fiction.

Today, I’ve spent the day in Freudian mode, analysing the dream sequences of others on Instagram and have discovered human frailty and human insecurity as evidenced by the force of its denial, by its over-compensatory claims to the contrary. I am in good company then. But there is also beauty here, beauty in the visual fictions we create.

Sitting in a cafe at the weekend my eye was drawn to the colours and shapes of a vinegar bottle, some sachets of sugar, a salt and pepper pot. Ignore the surroundings – the smeared egg on the plate, the spilled coffee grains, the squished potato on the tile floor – these things are not attractive, so we exclude them. We draw a frame around them, as around our lives, simplify the shapes, play with the composition, look for the golden ratios,.. out comes the Droid and,… snap.

Instagram provides a platform for such vignettes, also a set of filters and basic manipulation tools that seem designed to accentuate the romanticism of an image, but which real life has a way of filtering out. I don’t know by what magic this is achieved. I have spent many a fruitless hour on Paintshop trying to sprinkle this same effect over my photography, while Instagram achieves it with a few buttons and sliders.

But as with all social media there is the danger of valuing one’s life by the number of likes or followers – translate as “audience”. This is my life, as evidenced by this bottle of vinegar, and it must be worth it because I have a massive audience, thus my every freeze-frame is capable of reaching and influencing the lives of many others. We aspire to become actors in our own soap opera, our own willing Truman, gullible sacrifices to a global audience of voyeurs.  We must be vigilant then, and remember life is not art, that the person is not the portrait, or we risk tumbling into the delusional void of crass superficiality.

We all know life is lived entirely out of shot, yet subliminal feeds like Instagrams are interesting, especially when we focus on the whole, rather than upon its parts. Instagram is about the blink of the eye, it is about those moments when we have not brought our camera with us, when all we have is our ‘phone. And with it there is the potential to capture the most intimate, the most fleeting of moments, to collect them, to create a visual journal of our life’s journey. In the early days ‘phones came with poor cameras, but this is no longer the case.

So, I’ve spent the day with Instagram, populating a tentative mosaic of image-ined life. Shapes, colours, emotions, mystery, joy, longing, passion. The images in my stream do mean something to me, they do attempt to convey something, an aspiration perhaps to vignette the bits of life I value, but mostly I think to try to convey the beauty I find in the ordinary. Yes, an emotive sunset over sea or mountains will stir the heart, and most I think would agree such a thing is beautiful, but we can find beauty in the simple things too, in the every day.

Actually I’m no longer sure about that vinegar bottle. I think it looks ridiculous actually – whatever was I thinking? I may just edit that out, tidy up the romanticised notion of my life. Instagram is very good at that.

Of course it’s also good at shoving in your face the life-streams of today’s chosen celebrities, and one must therefore ask the question by means of what algorithm does Ronaldo out trump Zendaya, and who the hell are these people anyway, and how far would I have to scroll down to find the equally fictitious life-stream of Michael Graeme?

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The process of forgetting is sometimes more a matter of adaptation to circumstances than mental decay. There are things I have taken great pleasure in, but which I no longer indulge, and have largely forgotten. Adaptation is the only reason I can come up with for such self denial. Anything else makes no sense at all, and mostly what I tell myself I’m adapting to is lack of time.

Listening to this opening piece (Bach’s Lute Prelude, BWV 1006) by the guitarist John Williams, I’m reminded how much the guitar once meant to me – the colours, the tones, the varied and emotive pacing. The expression here literally catches my breath and brings tears to my eyes, but then the classical guitar was once my greatest love. I was a student of the guitar for many years, but the time to practice became progressively beyond my means as life and work matured into the routine of decades. It is a pleasure I have largely forgotten now.

I never aspired to mastery of this particular piece, though I once made a good fist of Bach’s technically easier Lute Prelude, BWV 999, after hearing it played by Narcisso Yepes on his stupendous ten stringed guitar. I no longer have that recording. I wore the original vinyl out and have searched everywhere for it to no avail. But here it is in the hands of  another master, Julian Bream (a quaintly staged recording from 1962):

It took me a year of practice to grasp even the fundamentals of this piece. There were moments when I fancied I sounded not unlike Bream, or Yepes, but mostly I would fumble my way like any third rank amateur. I only played it fluently the whole way through, once. It was a defining moment, a moment of great satisfaction. I would have been around forty years old. It was about then the process of forgetting set in.

I began my studentship at the age of six with a cheap junior guitar of dubious manufacture, and from then to the age of fourteen learned only how to make a noise with it. The guitar is a difficult instrument and not everyone has the fingers for it, but I loved it for its difficulty, that an instrument of such size and apparent simplicity in construction could enable such beauty in tone and expression. To listen to a piece of classical guitar, is to experience not just the one voice, as with a solo violin, it is to experience an entire ensemble. My love of music is owed to the classical guitar. Here, it says – this is what music can do to you, now go and see what else you can find.

At the age of fourteen, I received my second instrument, a lovely Japanese Moridaria, purchased cheaply from the girl next door, who had given up on it. With this guitar I began to find more harmony around chord improvisation, also some beginners tunes with the help of books. My fingering was nimble enough and quick, but I lacked a good teacher to take me where I wanted to go.

I had been advised by now, however, music was not my forte, at least according to my school music teacher – a miserable, shouty grouch of a man. Intellectually then, music remained an inaccessible mistress, locked away under his tutelage – indeed it was no more than a source of weekly terror. Privately though, and perhaps bloody mindedly, I persevered with the guitar because it was romantic, and I had in mind it would be a sure way to impress a certain girl, should I ever get close enough to her, and have my guitar handy. Oh, the optimism of youth!

I would take lessons, of course, one day, but for now other studies were pressing, squeezing out the time I needed for such an indulgence. As soon as my O Levels were out of the way, as soon as I had done my HNC, my HND, as soon as the nerve shredding years of the Engineering Council Examinations were over – then,… yes, then I would take time to devote to the study of something I loved, rather than something I merely needed.

But by this time I was twenty five, and that’s too late to be doing anything serious with the guitar. I made a start anyway, took myself and my old Moridaria to an evening class, and there met LW, a teacher who was a classical guitarist of mesmerising skill and exquisite tone. She was also of a much sweeter disposition and considerably better looking than my old school music teacher. I signed up with her for private lessons, and discovered music was my forte after all. I had the ear she said, and the rest was just practice. So, I bought another guitar, a serious instrument for a beginner – a Cuenca, from the region of Castilla-La-Mancha in central Spain. It has a beautiful, rich tone,… and between it and my teacher, at last I became a proper student of music!

Thanks to her I could read by now and, with persistence, could work through the beginner’s repertoires of Sor , Giuliani, Dowland, and the collected Estudios of Segovia. I once heard Segovia’s Estudio number 5 – actually Sor Op 35 No 22 – played in the precinct of my local town, a hairy guy in a trench-coat, playing with the power of a God and the expression of an angel. Of all the buskers that day, he was the only one turning heads, and this a northern working class market town, on its late 80’s  uppers.

I paused to listen, felt different for the experience, felt inspired. My teacher added that piece to my repertoire, bless her, and it remains among my favourites. But the lessons petered out. My teacher and I were by now engaged to be married,… to other people. Her teaching was replaced by babies, my studentship by the slow erosion of the mundane. I have not seen her in a quarter of a century, but have only to close my eyes to hear her play.

I persevered in private, trying to maintain fluency in those pieces I knew, but without time, without practice, first the fluency, then the shape memory falls apart. Few pieces remain now. I still have the guitar, still treasure it as a symbol, a talisman, but it gathers dust. It’s years since I had the courage to pick it up and relive those days.

I would never have been able to play like Williams, or Bream, or Yepes, or my own teacher – was never even competent to play for an audience of family or friends, nor yet still that particular young lady, had I ever been granted the opportunity – the music would go, robbed by self consciousness.

I close with Julian Bream and another transcription from Bach:

Listening to Bream, I think my favourite among all the greats, I am reminded the masters are there, not to be copied, or lived up to in the competitive sense. They possess something most of us do not, a divine gift to which few can ever aspire. But what they do is grant the rest of us the inspiration, that such beauty is still within the scope of human expression, that so long as some of us at least are capable of attaining such sublime heights as these, there is sufficient hope and meaning in life that, even amid its darkest of days, makes it worth the carrying on.

One day I shall dust off the guitar, and see what I remember of it.

One day, when I find the time.

Meanwhile my thanks to John Williams, to Julian Bream, to Narcisso Yepes, for their their mastery, and their continuing inspiration, and to LW for her life changing tutelage, brief though it was.

I can only hope her guitar is not as dusty as mine.

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far from the madding crowdWe didn’t have to wait long for the DVD version of Vinterberg’s 2015 film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, didn’t have to wait long either for it to drop to a fiver at Tescos. Film adaptations of Victorian novels are always on dodgy ground because the novels are long, films relatively short, so you have to ditch a lot of material if you want to make the running time. The trouble with that is, how much do you ditch while maintaining faithfulness to the original story? Why would you want to be faithful anyway? Well, it’s like supporting a roof while skimping on the rafters. Sooner or later the premise becomes so flimsy, it’s not worth the risk, and the story no longer stands. You might as well simply write your own tale and save on the film rights.

This adaptation doesn’t quite fall into that category, but neither is there much here that will impress devotees of Hardy’s Wessex novels – more likely just annoy them. In short, I was a little disappointed. I got off to a bad start with the opening scene and a subtitle describing the setting of the story as being 200 miles from London, this I presume for the international audience, and meant to instil a sense of remoteness, as if London were the only place in the UK worth a damn, and the rest is mud.


Anyway, the nub of it is that even with a two hour running time, the best you were ever going to get here was a pitch-precis, and that means ditching many of the key scenes, scenes of great meaning, at least to Hardy fans, turning something of depth and emotional complexity into candy-floss.

But the paradox is it’s a strong and photogenic cast, and they play it well. Cary Mulligan comes closest to my ideal Bathsheba. Michael Sheen, as Boldwood, is compellingly tragic, Tom Sturridge as Troy is convincingly caddish. Matthias Schoenaerts as Oak has a quiet, commanding presence, and his on screen chemistry with Bathsheba is convincing enough for me to forgive the lack of west country accent, or even an English accent for that matter.

Yet for all of that, the parts seemed underwritten for efficiency, the chopping of scenes rushing us along, leaving us breathless to catch up. It was a visually pleasing experience but, given the clear  potential of the cast, I found it superficial. Yes,… yes, I know – to do the story justice we’d need a mini-series topping six hours.

As for the central character – Bathsheba, she is played with great presence by Cary Mulligan, but the script papers over her  vanity, plays up her feminist credentials instead, I presume, to a modern audience. We also lost much of the potential of her character deepened by the tragedy of unfortunate choices. The Bathsheba at the end of this story seemed entirely unreformed to me, and I feel sure even the most stoical Oak would not have stuck with such a bossy britches, still smiling and flirting even after the murder of her husband and the incarceration of her would-be lover. Oak would have gone to America, like he said.

It’s not enough to say Oak was in love, for here what’s lacking is the mythic power of the story, of the hero winning through by a quiet attentiveness, and a loyalty that does not press his muse nor expect her favours, while all others in their harrying haste fail the test and meet a bad end.

It’s hard to imagine this retelling will stand the test of time, not in the same way as Schlesinger’s  ’67 adaptation which is still compellingly watchable. In that version, Julie Christie was visually miscast, but forgiven for it on account of her commanding performance. Terence Stamp as Troy, and Peter Finch as Boldwood were stunning, the former rakishly bad, the latter eyebrow twitchingly mad. I’ll even begrudgingly admit I liked Alan Bates’s turn as Oak. And with a longer running time (170 mins), the film was not so flimsy for having fewer planks taken out of it.

But if you don’t know who Thomas Hardy is and you couldn’t care less, you won’t mind or perhaps even notice the shortcomings of the latest adaptation since it boils down to a romantic costume drama, beautifully shot with engaging characters and a happy ending. In those terms at least, what’s not to like about it?

Victorian novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, obviously. Most of them bore the pants off me too. They can be overlong and overly descriptive, whole pages expended on the description of someone’s hat – things to be suffered in English Lit when young, then discarded. It’s so much easier to watch the film. What you get here though is a rough outline of the original story, compellingly acted and visually pleasing, but what it lacks, obviously, is the breadth and depth of Hardy’s intent, which is so much more than the tale of a country girl who fancies herself, and her three suitors: the cad, the sugar-daddy, and the quiet man, who all fancy her as well.

But listen, I’m just a grumpy bugger who likes Hardy and felt a bit let down, so you mustn’t take my word for any of this.

See it for yourself. Crack open a bottle of wine, serve up some tasty nibbles, take the ‘phone off the hook:

Out on DVD now!

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throstle's nest

So, today I went back to Marsden, setting for my novel Durleston Wood, also the place I was born. There’s a walk here I’ve been doing since childhood -woodland, meadow and riverside. I used to walk it in company with the Faery. Don’t believe in the Faery? Doesn’t matter; they don’t live here any more.

It’s impossible to overlook the changes that have taken place, the suburbanisation, the population increase, and its effect on the quiet places. Durleston is tattered around the edges now, and worse, it has been labelled by the council as amenity,…. as uggh,… country park. Meanwhile the spread of neighbouring Middleton drifts south year on year, its developments an artist’s impression, cast upon the blighted green; another meadow gone, and then another, until we reach the bounding Saracens – waste bins overflowing with bags of dog waste. Little wonder then the Faery have fled, gone gagging for cleaner air.

There was a time when Durleston meant something. Entering the wood from the hurly burly of the world you could feel the silence. It slowed the pulse, slowed the pace, drew you into the gentle currents of its ancient spirit ways. And there were voices, whisperings of imagination, of ghosts and sometimes you would hear the song of the Faery.

durleston wood cover smallBut to know Durleston, even as I knew it in the 60’s, was to know it in its dog days. Its intimacy was a comfort through the trials of childhood, its Faery song a familiar refrain, but a song also in part a lament, foretelling the subsequent decades of decline, of insult and injury. And my grief for its loss I have long carried like a thorn in my heart, long before it was lost, but lately I feel something else, too, something hostile, as if Durleston itself is rejecting me. It feels now like a former lover possessed by an unfamiliar and disturbing spirit. Her emissaries are the troll, the gnome, and their minion – the yapping dog.

Of which:

Descending into the wood today, I am accosted by a dog. It runs loose, aggressive, teeth bared, yapping. And ambling along the path comes the gnome. He is a corpulent youth, sweating in shorts and tee shirt, supermarket-bag of junk to hand. The gnome speaks:

“Better watch him mate,” he says, “or he’ll obliterate you.”

He seems a pleasant enough simpleton, sees no need to control his dog, thinks perhaps if it bites, it is my fault – not his concern. He does not think ahead, or through the consequences. Notwithstanding his odd and pointedly literate use of the word “obliterate”, his ignorance is his bliss.

My canine assailant is not a fighting dog, not a Pit Bull. Thank heavens then for small mercies. No, this is just a small yappy dog of indeterminate breed, daft as a brush, and domesticated only in the most token sense of the word. But even such dogs as this can draw blood, and draw it quick. I risk a nicked vein, torn flesh, and a trip to casualty. Some dogs too have a penchant for the buttocks. Perhaps the gnome would laugh at that.

“Got you there, didn’t he, mate?”

None of this is inconsequential, but neither is it the dog’s fault. The dog is being a dog, runner and rabble rouser in a pack of ignorance.

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsIn quieter times, before the spread of Middleton, before words like “amenity” were dreamed, I have meditated for hours in the dappled, shady quiet of Durleston, times when the wood revealed its hidden treasures: the nuthatch, kingfisher, water-vole, all the shy creatures, and sometimes the perception would broaden further to reveal the Faery.

Now the paths are torn open, deep wounds oozing mud, cut by the passage of muscular men in fetish gear, on bicycles. You cannot meditate for hours in the silence of Durleston any more. A minute is your lot between the passage of town folk in their careless packs, yapping as loud as their dogs.


I’m thinking I should say something to this man, ask him to put his dog on a lead, but he has a plump child in tow and might be inclined to yap assertively in order not to lose face, and his dog might take his tone then as permission to engage. I say nothing, feel instead my magnanimity ebb, my greeting smile fade to stone. The dog stands its ground. I have seen a dog, like this one, attempt to bite a passing lorry, so I do not suppose myself immune. Nor am I confident I could dispatch my assailant as efficiently .

A child was recently mauled by a dog running loose like this amid Durleston’s amenity. There were many dogs loose that day. The owner melted into the crowds and did not come forward to claim the child’s blood as his responsibility. But children are small, men are big. It is a doggish thing, and natural to take down the easier game.

That I do not threaten its pack permits the dog’s attention to wander. It loses interest, shoots away into the wood. What larks! I am saved, and move quietly on, but have lost my train of thought now, my ease, my meditative stride. Where was I? Believer in Faery, indeed! Where are the buggers when you need them!

The route is busy today, more packs of careless, flat-footed folk with loose dogs at every turn. I find it tiresome, negotiating safe passage in a kingdom to which I once had free reign. A springer bounds towards me – not aggressive this time, so I an not afraid. It leaps playfully, splats a dash of drool upon my pants, slaps there also its filthy paws then bounds away. It is with a fixed grin I ready myself to accept an apology from the lady owner, but none is forthcoming. Perhaps she is embarrassed. Perhaps she feels I am the strange one here, a man alone, walking without a dog.

I abandon the route, come up instead by the Throstle’s Nest, a less trodden way. In the long ago, the meadows here were a steaming tip. The plough still brings up fresh shards of pot and glass with each pass, so that in the early spring, when the sun hits right and the crop is low, the way is all a glitter. The plough also breaks the shards into a fresh, keen sharpness, so I would not like to lose my footing for the ground is seeded here with teeth. It ensures I am little troubled by dogs though.

rye3I concede the loss of Durleston, conceded it even before it was lost. I got a novel out of it, so I count my blessings – parting gift of the Faery perhaps. There is town and country, and their ways are not alike. The country that abuts the town will always suffer the town’s corruption. Unlikewise, the town is never healed, never cleansed by its proximity to the shady dell.

The Faery shake their heads, bewildered. They move on at the sound of our footfall, and at the yapping of our dogs who seem more often our delinquent masters. I understand I too must move on, that this lament for a lost Arcadia is part of the human condition, something welling eternal from the soul of the world. Indeed I have moved on, moved away, feel it now on the in-breath as this antagonism in the spirit of Durleston, as on the out I still grieve its loss, feel myself floundering and in search of something I was surely nearer grasping as a child than I am now.

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writer pasternakWhen the compulsion to write borders on the pathological, there comes a danger in valuing the time to write so much we resent anything that threatens to steal the writing time away. To sit, to think, fingers poised over the key-board, waiting on the favours of one’s muse, coaxing out the shape of our thoughts – this is the finest, the most intimate of things for the writer. But in every day life there’s always a list of other things that needs sorting out as well – instead of writing.

I have a tile missing from the roof of my house and the rain is seeping in; the toilet is taking an age to refill after flushing because of a leaky diaphragm on the siphon mechanism; the kitchen floor is creaking because of the way the know-it-all numptys fitted it, and all the handles are falling off the cupboard doors for the same reason; condensation levels within my house are causing an unsightly mildew problem on external walls, so the background is filled with the roar of dehumidifiers, and I am assailed daily by cars breaking down.

These are the distractions that spring to mind without much thinking. Many others would be revealed upon deeper reflection, but I’m not going there for now. All I want to do is sit and think, fingers poised. I want to write and when I want to write, I wish the real world would go away, because there are times when the real world is pale by comparison with the imaginary realms. The problems it presents, though on occasion deeply upsetting – even life-changing – are for the most part laughably trivial – just inordinately time-consuming. But I can only conclude that since they are among our most constant companions, such trivia must in some way be a vital part of our lives. And I am reminded there is nothing in nature that is superfluous.

Fortunately the writer, like the dreamer, has resort to metaphor and symbolism. Yes, even a leaky roof can be read symbolically, also my makeshift remedial actions consisting of buckets in the attic, ditto my failed attempts to get any tradesmen to turn up to put the tile back on the roof. Then I remind myself the roof’s been leaking since I moved in, fifteen years ago, and probably for decades before that. Until it brings the ceilings down, it’s out of sight and mostly out of mind. Now this,… this is metaphorically interesting and its translation yields the following insights: you can’t rely on others to fix your problems. Ultimately you will always have to do it yourself. Also, in the background of life there is always stuff going on we’re unaware of, and it pays to be wary of disturbing stones in case of what should crawl out from underneath.

The creaking of the kitchen floor is harder to read. I could extend the metaphor to include the astronomical cost of the thing and the slipshod service I received in return, but cynicism is never fruitful, since it tends only to root us more in the mire of an ordinary reality. It’s more interesting if I include the idea of a kitchen as the source of nourishment – and more so if I loosen the terms to include forms of nourishment beyond the physical. Something creaky about the place I obtain my nourishment? Hmm,… now we’re getting somewhere. This makes sense, though all to often I hide from the truth of it.

Problems with the toilet are more obvious. No, really. They suggest an issue with the means of disposing of that which I no longer need. Toilets feature in my dreams a lot, too. I wish it were otherwise. Were I able to choose, I would dream of orbiting on the ISS with Sandra Bullock, but what I get is toilets. So, there’s a lot of useless stuff I need to flush away. Well, I’m working on it.

Mildewy walls? Too much moisture condensing on cold externals? Hmm,… even drunk I’d find it hard to wrestle any metaphysical meaning from that one, but let’s try shifting our view a bit: corruption lurking in the hidden places, places that lack a decent airing? Now that angle is much more promising. It makes sense not to go poking about looking for problems, yes, but at some point hidden issues can spill over and become unhealthy, so it’s as well to be aware of them, then we’re not taken by surprise. Beware that lassiez faire attitude over the roof, Michael?

Cars feature large at the moment. There are five cars in my household: wife, two kids, two cars of my own, five, and problems with all of them. Metaphorical analysis: Car – a means of conveyance, of making way, and all grown unreliable – no, not true. The cars registered in my own name are trustworthy, but what sometimes falters is my trust in them due to issues of personal confidence, so I blow up minor faults into life-stopping disasters. Yes, this is a potentially lucrative field. I have the means of travel, but am less confident of the road than I once was. Conversely, in the days when my means of conveyance was patently less reliable, I possessed a disproportionate confidence and journeyed all over the place, though mostly with my eyes closed. Now I have opened my eyes a little and possess the means to go much further, paradoxically, I travel less. Yes,… this is worth thinking about.

I could go on:

Dealing with stuff can be exhausting. We resent the problems thrown at us. How can we be expected to write when the dishwasher needs emptying, the washing basket is overflowing and the clothes line is broken? Well, maybe we should just get over ourselves and think of it this way: if we’d no problems to solve, there’d be nothing to write about. Don’t think too literally here; nobody else cares about our actual problems – they have enough of their own – so don’t go whining on about how difficult your life is. We must exterminate the “poor me” at every opportunity. Problems, difficulties create within us an energy of reaction, and we can either direct it in negative, self-destructive directions, or positive, creative ones.

When we begin to think metaphorically, symbolically, even magically, we climb outside of the physical life and view it as if from a mountain-top. It doesn’t make our problems go away, but we discover there are insights to be had from them. Oh, I admit some of them sound absurd, but others undoubtedly ring true. Like reading an oracle, or the fall of the runes, when it comes to symbols, the unconscious mind will always guide us to those stories that are personally meaningful. And it’s by means of those stories the writer discerns the shape of things beyond the three dimensions of ordinary reality.

But then again we must exercise moderation and take care in how far we go with this kind of thinking or things can backfire. As a friend of mine once said – and referring back to that missing tile on my roof – in some parts of the world it is by no means a complement to be told one is leaking somewhere.

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sunita coverIndependent, self publishing authors fall into two camps – those who are trying to make money and a name for themselves, and those who aren’t. I’m firmly in the latter camp these days, though I wasted a lot of time and youth trying to erect a tent in the former. Metaphor exhausted, we move on to consider the differences and similarities. Similarities first: both camps are trying to be taken seriously.

If you’re wanting to make money you need a piece of work that’s worthy of being read, but the same applies if you’re giving stuff away. A book is a piece of who you are, a snapshot of the inside of your head and we all like to present the best of ourselves, not because we’re fake and trying to pass off rubbish, but because we’re trying to be sincere, while at the same time fearing we might be coming across as gibbering idiots. So, the work needs to be well presented, because gibbering idiots do not present well. This equates to good grammar, spelling, and a complete absence of typos.

Grammar and spelling come down to education and experience. Typos,… well, there’s not a lot we can do about those by ourselves. In the self publishing world, typos are here to stay. Get used to it.

My own grammar follows the rules I learned for English O level circa 1975, which makes it perhaps a little staid, though tempered and influenced by the more daring examples set by my own reading experience, and what other authors seem to have got away with in the name of their art. The language I use comes from the voices in my head and I know when something really jangles there’s a problem with the grammar. Typos are a a different matter. Notice that? Notice what? Go back and read it again.

Typos are impossible to spot at spot at times, especially for the person committing the typo. The mind thinks it knows what should be there. It interprets, it simplifies information in order to give you the impression of what is there, rather than what is actually there.  This is interesting to anyone with a penchant for psychology and the nature of reality. Other than that it just makes us a target for pedants.

The best way of dealing with typos is to get someone else to read everything you’ve written before you post it. But I write about two hundred thousand words a year, and nobody loves me that much. You can pay for it, but if you’re not making money out of your writing why should you?

My last novel “The Price of Being With Sunita” picked up a generally complementary review recently, though this was attenuated somewhat by the comment that I’d managed to commit an even higher than average typo count for your average self published novel. This doesn’t surprise me as I’m still sweeping up typos from books I wrote a decade ago, and which I’ve already been through dozens of times. Fact: there’ll be fewer typos in Sunita ten years from now, but there’ll still be typos.

I know,… as writers we do the best we can, but as readers the experience of reading is best not jarred by typos. They cause a narrative pause, rather like a log-jam, or sometimes even a poke in the the eye. The reader thinks: what was that? Is that really what he meant? Have I missed something? Oh, it’s just a typo.

And of course none of the fatal errors thus far committed in this piece would be swept up by the red underlines of spelling checkers, so the writer is very much on his own. I don’t know what the solution to typos is, other than some form of cognitive re-wiring, but I do know what the solution isn’t:

The world of publishing has changed, with many self published books now becoming mainstream, thus teasing the rest of us with the possibilities of riches. And with these changes has grown up a new branch of the industry, one for want of a better phrase I shall call: “paid author services”. These services are offered by people who take money in exchange for work on presentation. They create nothing, but they’ll root out the typos in your manuscript, even offer you a marketing package, for a fee. But in all cases the money is flowing the wrong way, so far as the author is concerned, and my advice to my fellow independent authors is to be careful. The people offering paid author services now are the same people who worked in “vanity publishing” in last century, but whose aim is the same – to target the vulnerable and to part them from their money.

The author still trying to make money and a name might be tempted by those adverts for author services. They might think it a worthwhile investment in a brighter future and godlike recognition for their labours, when what in fact they are is a potential victim. The author in the other camp need not worry so much – we just do the best we can.

Remember, whatever kind of writing you do the three immutable laws of writing remain:

1) People pay you, the author, for your work.

2) If you can’t get people to pay for your work, it’s okay to give it away in exchange for a readership – no matter how small.

3) You, the author, never pay anyone anything. Ever. Period.

It’s particularly embarrassing to be picked up on my typos, having written in the past on how best to remove typos from your work. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. In a proper published book or even a newspaper article there’s this poor, underpaid minion called a sub-editor whose job it is to spear all those typos and make the author look good, look brilliant. But the self published independent doesn’t have that luxury. And if he’s giving his work away he’s not obliged to be able to afford that luxury either. All he has is his wits, and his sincerity. Self published works will contain typos. Guaranteed. It’s a pain in the arse, I know, but get over it.

In return what you get is a work straight from the author’s keyboard. You also get it cheap.

Sometimes you don’t pay for it at all.








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southport pier

To become conscious of one’s self is in part to journey along a path towards the realisation of one’s absolute invisibility. More than this it is also to realise everyone we meet along the way is invisible as well.

No one can ever truly know another person. No one else can ever know what we feel, or think. All we can know of each other is what we express through the inadequate means of the physical body, through what we say, what we write, how we move. But how good are we at expressing ourselves? How good are we at interpreting expression? In a sense, we are all prisoners, isolated, and tapping on the walls of our being, that others might know of our presence. But for all of our efforts, the greater part of our selves, the vital part, remains invisible.

So, when we meet others in physical reality we always do so on terms that are mutually delusional. I think I know you, and you think you know me, but we are only projecting our own prejudice and predispositions onto one another, so seeing in each other instead murky reflections of our own shadows, which are by turns attractive and repulsive. As relationships develop with our more favoured companions we might feel justified in saying we come to know them well, but again it’s only their habitual modes of expression we are familiar with. We will never know what they are thinking or feeling, nor they us.

It’s a necessary revelation, this realisation of one’s invisibility, also a good starting point, the assumption what we say, or what we’re hearing could be easily misinterpreted even to the inverse of what is actually intended. It should make us more cautious, more searching, more conscious of our selves and the effects we might be having on others. It might also make us more forgiving.

There are two sides to reality. There is what we perceive and express in the physical world, and then there’s what we feel or imagine in the inner world, the world of the psyche. We each of us sit at the boundary of an inner and an outer world, and neither reality can be excluded from any true description of the totality of human experience.

But the senses have the effect of drawing us out towards embracing more and more of physical reality, until we identify with it completely. We dismiss the inner world, the world of imagination and dreams, as meaningless, indeed as being “unreal”, since it is not “physical”. Thus we close off the door to inner reality, imprison ourselves in the physical and we suffer accordingly, because the physical world can never fulfil a need for completion that is entirely psychological in origin. Mankind’s suffering in the physical world knows no bounds and is increasingly suggestive of our eventual annihilation. Worse, there are many physical scientists today who express the belief consciousness itself is an illusion, that although we might cherish the sense of our own being, in fact we do not exist at all, and never have. How can we not despair? Not only are we trapped in the prison of our minds and invisible to others, we are led to believe there is no one out there either, not even our selves.

But we do exist. We are invisible, yes, but we still have a profound effect on the physical world. Everything that was ever built, or made began as an idea, and ideas are born already fully formed as insights in the inner world. In order to give birth to them we must express them into physical reality through drawing or writing or construction. But without the idea occurring in the first place, nothing would be built or drawn or written down, and the world would be entirely as nature made before mankind ever came along and began to shape it. And ideas are the stuff of minds, the stuff of that realm we would dismiss as unreal.

The danger for all of us then is the same as it has always been. It is to forget we are invisible and to believe the form we express in physical reality is the sum total of who we really are, similarly that all forms are more real than the ideas from which they were born, that happiness can come only in the endless pursuit of material form, that the solution to all our problems can only come from the discovery of yet one more “thing” in physical reality, and that thing will have a form and a name ready made.

It wont.

Cultivating an awareness of the inner world is important if we want to live a better life, and see a better society, one that more closely reflects our potential in positive ways. The realisation we are all invisible is a useful milestone. But we do not need to withdraw from life into monkish caves in order to ponder its implications, only realise it is the quality of our ideas that determines the richness or otherwise of life. The best of us is realised as ideas that rise from the deeper layers of the psyche, the worst from the regurgitated scum of a shallower kind of thinking, a thinking that expresses itself as an habitual will to power. But I think we’re starting to know that side of our selves a little better now. I think we are all becoming more conscious of our selves.

Only when we realise how invisible we are do we begin to see each other, and the world more clearly.

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