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psion 5

It was a good machine, the Psion 5. Even after twenty years there are still a lot of them around, though mostly I suspect lurking at the backs of drawers. I note they’re fetching good prices on Ebay too, which suggest they still have a bit of a niche following, but surely it’s had its day by now, hasn’t it?

I wrote a lot of stuff on mine – this being at a time when your main computer sat on the floor and hummed and got hot, and portability meant a laptop. But laptops were only for business users – being rather on the pricey side, so if you wanted to write away from your desk, options were limited.

I used it every day for the better part of a decade, so much so the keys went shiny. I wrote everything on it it, only transferring stuff to the computer when I was ready to publish. Why did I eventually give up on it? Well I found that, as computers went through their various iterations of the Windows operating system, it became harder to get stuff off the Psion and onto the computer.

For data transfer you used Psion’s Psiwin software, which you installed on the computer. Then you plugged your Psion in with a venerable old RS232 cable, and your Psion popped up as an icon on your desktop. After that you ran the Psiwin conversion utility on the files you wanted, to get them into MS Word or even just plain old RTF format. But at some point that cable thing failed to keep up, RS232 was abandoned and suddenly I needed a USB cable converter before I could do the converting, and the cable converter thing never worked properly.

I remember die hards arguing over it on the forums – switch this, switch that, hold your mouth this way and poke your tongue out and all will be well, they said – or words to that effect. But by now laptops were cheap, so I bought one of those instead, and the Psion got left behind. I’ve not touched it since 2007.

Then, out of curiosity, I popped a couple of AA batteries into it, changed the button cell and switched it on, and it still worked. Instantly. I riffled through the files on the compact flash card and discovered an entire first draft of The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, a substantial prototype of Between the Tides, and several other early works I’d completely forgotten about. It was like an archaeological dig through my older writings, but it also reminded me what a terrific mainstay of my writing life this little device used to be.

Over the years, I’ve missed the Psion for its ease of use, for its portability, indeed its pocketability, and have tried in vain to find a replacement for it. Laptops aren’t really that portable, as anyone who’s lugged one around knows and you need to be able to plug them in every day or they’re useless. A Psion will run for 50 hours on even the cheapest home brand AA’s. Stick a couple of 2700 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeables and it’ll take you to the moon and back.

I also liked the fact that, before the cable issues, the Psion just worked. You opened it up and the last thing you were working on was right there. Instantly. No distractions. The machine never bothered you with nags about updates and it never flashed adverts at you.  So I wondered,.. might there be a way to beat those RS232 blues after all, and get this thing back on the road?

Well, you still need those conversion routines in Psiwin – no way around that – but the cable? Actually, no, you don’t need it, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. You still need Psiwin, no way around that, but if you’ve lost it, don’t worry, you can download it legally, for free, here. Trying to install it on a 64 bit machine running Windows 10 though will throw up an incompatibility warning. But in spite of these protestations, Windows will still load all the files you need into the program folder, so ignore the warnings and carry on.

As for that cable. Forget it. Instead, simply remove the compact flash card from the Psion and slot it into a card reader on the computer. That’s all there is to it. True, most computers no longer cater for Compact Flash cards in the media slots, but there are plenty of older pro-DSLR cameras around that use them, so you can still buy them, along with plug-in usb readers.

Windows should then identify your card and list your files, but these will be in Psion’s own Epoc format. They need converting. So, you navigate to the Windows/Programs/Psion folder, and rummage about until you find the “cpycnv” (copy and convert) executable. This is the only thing you need, but before you can coax it to life you’ll have to right click it and change the compatibility mode to XP service pack 3.

You should then be able to use the cpycnv interface to locate the files on the flash card, tell the converter what format you want them in and where you want them. Then you’ll be able to open them in Windows using whatever package you prefer. I use Jarte or Libre Office.

All right, it’s a bit of a faff to begin with, but it definitely works, and with a shortcut to cpycnv on the desktop, things should be slicker next time.

As a writing tool, the Psion may be old but it’s definitely still relevant, as evidenced by the fact I wrote this blog on it, and plan to write more. It’s certainly much better than trying to write stuff on your phone or a tablet – even one with a generous amount of screen to spare. And it’s actually easier with the Psion to convert to the more recognisable – (ie MS) word processing formats on a PC, than it is from a portable Android or an Apple device.

The keyboard is solid and has a good feel to it, being about as small as is practical while allowing for fast, accurate typing. It has a word count and spell checker, and no internet to distract you. And of course the whole thing folds up and slides nicely into a jacket pocket. For writing on the go, it hasn’t been beaten in twenty years.

On the downside, the Psion screen is an early touch-screen LCD and quite murky compared with the crisp brightness of a modern device. Mine has a backlight but that seems to have faded over time and makes little difference now. All round though, the Psion 5 is a design classic, rather like an old Smith’s clock – solid, reliable – and made in England!

If you’ve still got one at the back of a drawer, why not blow the dust off it and remind yourself how good a thing it still is?

 

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the other side of midnightOkay, this one’s hopefully timed to go out at midnight on New Year’s Eve, while being written ad-hoc some time before. It’s just a quick post to say thank you to all my regular responders, also to the silent lurkers. All are welcome!

The Spring of next year will mark a decade of blogging for me. I still seem to have the energy for it, so it obviously remains important in some way.

I suppose that’s it with writing or indeed any form of creativity. While many of us are called to it, not many find their living at it, so the Internet, though much maligned in recent times as a vehicle for all manner of malevolence, still has its positive aspects. Hopefully in time we can learn to take advantage of those positives while getting smarter at dealing with the negatives. But that’s a long story and very complicated, a story trailing off into the future, and I want to keep this short and simple and focused very much on the present moment.

My posts towards the end of 2017 have had a negative trend, result perhaps of unsettling world events and the contemplation of various worrying future scenarios. My resolution for 2018 however is to regain positivity and optimism.  There are challenges ahead, but  how we deal with them most powerfully and least self-destructively, begins with the present moment, and our relationship with it. The trouble is, we forget, and we forget because we think too much.

Negativity is the result of resisting the present moment, of seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome, got around, or even somehow outwitted while we fix our sights, our hopes on some future time. We  resist change, we try to hold on to secure ground when all else is breaking away. With this approach, whatever we say or do in response reflects only the weakness of our position. Instead we must always be accepting of whatever is, become intimately aware of the present moment and our presence in it. Then we can work with it, and realise our true power in the face of change.

My very best wishes to you all.

See you on the other side of midnight.

 

 

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the masterOkay, let’s be careful with our terms here. When we say ‘crisis’, what we really mean is even celebrity authors can’t make money writing literary fiction any more. Book buying is in decline generally, but literature especially. What’s literary fiction? Well, roughly speaking it’s what’s left when you take out all the other stuff people generally prefer reading – the genre stuff: thrillers, chick-lit, crime, horror, sci-fi,… whatever. It’s the kind of stuff written against the odds of anyone actually being interested in it. Sounds a bit grim, and it can be, but on the plus side ‘research’ suggest literary fiction is the genre most likely to improve a reader’s soul. But who cares about that these days?

I hesitate to say it’s the kind of stuff I write because that would grant me airs I’m not sure I’m due, but since my stuff won’t fit into any other genre I suppose that’s what I must call it. And that’s a pity because according those who supposedly know – all those book publishy types – literary fiction is finished. Kaput! It’s really so ‘over‘ darling.

Hmm, story of my life.

Except:

What saves me from oblivion is the fact I already don’t make my living at it, and never have so it’s a bit of a moot point to me. I’ve always had a day job, though to be frank for as long as I’ve had it – some forty years now – all I’ve ever wanted to do is quit it and write. Thank heavens for common sense then.

So, bottom line, it’s harder now for those who used to scrape a living at writing high-brow fiction – facts of life catching up and all that. But it doesn’t mean that kind of fiction’s dead. It just means you won’t find it in Waterstones any more. And at fifteen quid a pop guys, I mean, come on. There are some  who have to feed themselves all week off that. Oh, yes, seriously. So you need to get out of London and go visit some provincial towns. Maybe then you’ll be surprised to learn hardly any of them can muster a bookshop any more. They’re all Pound-land and charity shops, and thank God. Me? I get my literature from places like Age Concern and the Heart Foundation. So it’s no wonder the bottom’s dropped out of the market.

The starving artist in his garret? Yes, that old Romantic trope still exists. He might have a Masters’ degree in creative writing or literature now, or some other highbrow thing, but if he wants to live he works sixty hours a week in shop, or a warehouse earning £7.25 an hour, slaving for a grumpy old philistine who makes his life a misery. Then he goes home to his mouldy old flat, the rent on which takes most of what he earns, and he pens a literary line or two before he passes out. Then he submits them blind to a publisher who hasn’t a clue who he is. And you know what happens? Well, let’s just say he finds out soon enough there’s no money in literature, that indeed there never was for the likes of him, which is a pity because his story is the story of our times and worth listening to.

So that’s not to say there’s no need for it. It’s just a question of who needs it most and since the influential are deaf as a post to the cries of suffering heard all about us these days I still maintain the person most served by such work is the writer himself. Readers are a bonus, but hardly to be guaranteed, and not necessary anyway. So stick it online and be damned. If there’s no money in it you might as well, then move on and write something else because that’s what writers do. Isn’t it?

Can’t make a living at it? I know, it’s sad. But if stories are important, and the writers really mean it when they say they’re writers, rather  than posers in tweed jackets, the stories will get written anyway by someone not so proud. And this internet thing will disseminate all the unprofitable literary stuff and preserve it for eternity – unless of course this net-neutrality business gets a look in and then we’re all stuffed.

But that’s a story of a different kind, possibly much worse, and I’ve yet to get my head around it.

Maybe next time.

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tmp_2017072309511689647November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – and though it’s only September, there’s already a buzz among online writers who are getting ready for it. It’s now no longer a national (USA) thing of course, and has swept up vast hoards of wannabe authors from around the globe. I admit to never having bothered with it, mainly because at the rate I write, it seems unrealistic I could produce a novel in just four weeks. But that’s not really the point.

The point of NaNoWriMo is fifty thousand words in thirty days. We’re not talking about quality of writing or a well plotted story here, more a significant quantity of words that hang together in some form of narrative. The point is not to ponder the details but to blast out the words, producing if necessary nothing more than a stream of consciousness. The end result might be implausible, poorly written, even unintelligible, but we can always go back and revise.

So, we can perhaps guess that many of the varied outputs of NaNoWriMo, frantically hacked out in those thirty days are unlikely to produce a Booker prize, at least not without significant revision, and so long as that’s understood we can see the constructive nature of the effort: you’ll never have something worth revising if you can’t get the words out in the first place. NaNoWriMo is a way of encouraging writers to get down to it. It’s also useful in that it allows us to gain energy for the task from like-minded members of an online group. Think of it as a vast writer’s workshop and supporting network.

But having said that I still won’t be taking part in it. It’s a serious commitment and for me at least would serve no purpose, since I’m not writing for anyone else. It also seems somewhat perverse encouraging writers of fiction when the market for our produce is in decline. Simply put: fewer people are reading stories. There are already too many words, and fiction is out of fashion. We would be better encouraging reading fiction instead.

The term “geek” should be outlawed as an abuse to intelligence, but it is regularly used to besmirch the bookish. And no one wants to be a geek. No one wants to be seen as anything other than fashionably sexy, even if that means pretending to be dumb as well. Amongst young males in particular reading is considered seriously un-cool. I know it’s a challenge with so many alternative forms of entertainment around – check your Facebook stuff, or spend and hour with a novel? Those who love reading will take the novel every time, but they’ll be mostly older people, like me who don’t know what Facebook is.

Does it matter? I think it does. I’m a long time writer of stories. I create characters, have them interact in ways I find intriguing, and I present ideas on the nature of relationships and our purpose in the world. I may be completely wrong in my views but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as with all art, is that it provokes a reaction because it’s through the reaction the beholder gains an intelligent independence of thought and an instinctive appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong. Reading fiction is good for the soul.

Fiction is a peculiar thing, an elaborate lie, an account of something we’re all agreed never happened, and we happily step into the fantasy, become immersed in it far more than we could ever be immersed in a visual drama, say a film or a play, because with fiction we get inside heads where the business of thinking takes place and we see things as others see them. Reading fiction therefore can render us more sympathetic and empathic towards others. Such things are not strictly necessary of course if all we need as a species is to function at the unconscious level of a machine, but one day we’ll have robots for that and they’ll be far better at it than we are.

In spite of the concerted effort of materialists over the decades, human beings can never be adequately defined as machines. There’s always going to be more to us, and one of the things that sets us apart is our relationship with stories. The story teller has the skill of invention and the holding of attention by playing upon the archetypal substrate from which we all rise. This grants him a unique place in society. But if no one’s listening any more, the story teller might as well go chop wood. So by all means, do your fifty thousand words in November, but for your sins, you should then spend the whole of December reading a book – no, four books. And then, to show you were paying attention to them, write a blog telling us your impressions of each one.

 

 

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henry cordier

It’s happened to me before, this thing with computers and writing. The manuscript I’ve been working on, maybe for years, gets lost, the file corrupted, the computer hard drive eats its self, the pen-drive fails to connect in the slot at the critical moment, or I yank it out too soon, there’s a power cut,…

It happened with The Singing Loch, The Road from Langholm Avenue, The Last Guests of La Maison Du Lac, and now The Sea View Cafe. Okay, I was able to recover stuff from earlier back-ups, rewrite the gaps from scratch and generally piece things back together one way or the other, but it’s still a blow when it happens. We think to ourselves: all that work? GONE. It’s a very existential moment.

Computers have many advantages, but the most important of them is simply the ability to backspace and delete. Storage is another plus, so I’m not suggesting they’re a bane – they’re not.  I’ve got everything I’ve ever written on a Micro SD card. A novel as a paper manuscript is about a kilogram and a lot of shelf of space. As a computer file, it’s about a megabyte of RTF, which is basically a flyspec. I don’t need a library or a study to keep my tomes or my reference works, which is just as well because my house isn’t big enough.

Some might say it’s a disadvantage, that I might now lose my entire life’s work down a gap in the floorboards, but my house could get burned down, or flooded, and all that paper destroyed anyway. Nowadays, wherever I am, it’s there, and it’s backed up in so many places I’d have to be very unfortunate to lose them all. Computers are a boon to the writer, but like anything else we need to understand the weaknesses of the system, adapt our approach accordingly and never forget it’s the word that’s king, not the tech.

DH Lawrence famously left his final draft of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in the Cafe at Reading Station, never to be seen again. The version that survives is one he cobbled together afterwards from earlier drafts. Jilly Cooper left her only copy of the manuscript of “Riders” on a London bus. It was never found. She rewrote it from scratch, but it took her nearly fifteen years. Robert Ludlum’s first novel “A Literary Effort” was lost “somewhere” in San Francisco during a heavy drinking session. That was never found either, and he didn’t re-write it. Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood three times, the last one being eventually found in a Pub. The manuscript of Carlyle’s “French Revolution” was mistaken for waste paper and burnt,…

It happens. We get over it, we move on.

My advice is never to save your working copy to a computer hard drive, ever, to use removable media instead, say a pen drive or a memory card, make regular backups, guard your primary source with your life, and have it backed up all over the place – say on other pen drives, on your computer, or in the cloud. But regarding the cloud, remember we should never rely on anything someone else has the potential to switch off or screw up. For my works-in-progress, Dropbox provides occasional peace of mind, but that’s all, and of course anything of a potentially embarrassing or explosive nature should never go into the cloud at all – your personal journal say, or your juvenile ventures in writing pornography, even if, or even especially if, it’s encrypted.

It’s not a foolproof system, and no matter how paranoid you are, you’re bound to lose something sooner or later. The first time it happens it’s like the end of the world. You’ve worked for years on this manuscript, and it’s the best of you, and it was going to change the world, have people fall down and worship at your feet, and suddenly it’s GONE, or it’s shredded into fragments interspersed with vast blocks of ASCII. But what you learn from the depth of your despair, and the time it takes you to get over it is perhaps more important than if the novel had been finished and published to resounding applause.

I mean, it’s not like you lost a loved one, is it? It’s not like your soul-mate took off with your best friend, or your house got flattened by a hurricane. These are also challenges in life, and the things they teach us about life and about ourselves are arguably more important. The most we can learn from the loss of a manuscript is to laugh at our literary pretensions. We see our ego, and if we’re lucky we see also how naked and stupid he looks.

My last backup of the Sea View Cafe was in June (I know, shameful!). Fortunately, since I’m struggling to make headway with it at the moment, this amounts to just four chapters, or about ten thousand words. And since I was struggling with it, I’m looking upon it as an opportunity to find a new direction rather than trying to rewrite the chapters from memory. Call it fatalism if you like, or a drastic editorial intervention by the muse, but maybe those lost scenes just weren’t meant to be, and who cares anyway?

Philosophically speaking, writing for the online world, the fact a thing is written in the first place is the most important thing for the writer, no matter if it’s then instantly deleted, and no one else sees it because it’s already served it purpose, to you , the person who wrote it. And if you can’t remember what it was you said, sufficient to rewrite it, or you can’t be bothered, how can it have been that important someone else gets to read it anyway?

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henry cordierI’ve been struggling with a feeling of shallowness of late, as if all the poetry has died – not just the writing or the reading of it, but the more visceral seeing of it in every day things. The dark lake of the unconscious through which I sift my fingers in order to light upon its treasures has been drained, and like an old canal, reveals now only a muddy bottom strewn with rubbish, chucked in over the decades, and none of it amounting to very much.

I know this isn’t how it really is, only that I am seeing it this way through an habitual downturn in my vision. In past years, in my search for the meaning I have touched on some significant jewels, mysteries, shadowy doorways through which I have glimpsed gardens of delight, all bathed in the ethereal glow of what I believe to have been a genuine spiritual revelation. In my journeys of the mind I have explored the nature of existence, not just on the material plane, but in the deeper places, beyond life and time and death. I have not come up empty but, like pebbles, all lustrous when wet, the visions have dried out now to a less alluring, less tangible patina. I think I understand the process, and must not lose heart. It’s part of the cycle of the creative life.

In the alchemy of the mind we progress from a fledgling stage of intellectual turmoil and spiritual darkness, what they call the nigredo. We apply the heat of the mind’s furnace to the base material, the soul held captive in the alembic of our life’s experience. The impurities rise, the surface blackens, the base undergoes transformation through a process of sublimation to higher and higher stages of awareness and understanding. Or so the theory goes. But in my personal journey, after brief openings in the clag-caked surface, I return again to the nigredo. I glance back over my shoulder and the black dog is stalking, and no matter how startling and real the revelations of past cycles, the attitude becomes one more of: “So what? It doesn’t alter the fact I still have to get up at half past six every weekday morning, and go to work.”

It’s a question then of the way we see things. I understand, I think, the process is not one of aiming for a destination of the mind, a transformation to some kind of super-humanness. We are already at the destination, always have been, so the destination, if that is what we must call it, is simply the realisation we need not have left home in the first place, that home is wherever you are right now, and all you can ever gain, the greatest gift in life, is the vision that enables you to see things properly, see again the depth and lustre in the dried out pebble, and in the world about you poetry, everywhere.

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It’s been a summer of violent and tragic events here in the UK. Once upon a time we would pause for a minute’s silence to remember the wars and the fallen. It happened once a year, was a predictable, sombre occasion each November, a reflection on the folly of armed conflict. Now it seems we’ve had a minute’s silence every week for weeks in response to the shock of one damned thing after the other – bombings, mass stabbings, vans driven into pedestrians, and of course the terrible London tower block fire.

Such events shock us, pull us from our private lives, reconnect us with the human collective and cause us to question the nature of the incurable malaise from which we apparently suffer. And of course the speed with which events are now reported lends an extra feverishness to the times, a feverishness spun to favour one shameless political agenda or another. We need no longer wait for the ten o’clock news like we did in the old days, the Smartphone tells it all, instantly, and the story it tells is one of perpetual shock, violence, hatred and a corporate greed that verges on the homicidal.

It’s sometimes hard not to view our times from the nihilistic perspective as evidence of an acceleration towards the end of days. Certainly pictures of the burned out Grenfell Tower are as symbolic as they are deeply shocking. But the people who died that night were not victims of extremists. The enemy that sealed the fate of Grenfell Tower was more a culture of institutional avarice, one painstakingly manufactured over the decades to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the lives of the poor. All of these things, though diverse in origin, seem part of the same unsettling atmosphere of the times, like faces vaguely recognisable from our deepest nightmares, all of them bearing weapons of one sort or another.

But if you can look beyond the violence, beyond the tragedy, it’s possible to discern something else happening, something that suggests less a rush to the end of times and more to a transformation of the collective consciousness. The bigger the outrage and the faster these events come at us, the bigger too the response of the many who awaken and gather, not with violence in mind, but with a compassionate dignity. And the pocket media that disseminates these shocks so far and fast and wide also unites us, brings us together in ever larger numbers, mobilises us to a deeper empathy and reflection.

The world of the technocracy is increasingly machine-like and it has become a proxy for the collective human ego, a thing wrestling for control over every aspect of our lives, measuring even the keyclicks on our computers, evaluating them for the risk inherent in our thoughts and beliefs, to predict and plan in order to subvert bad events even ahead of time. But the more you plan, and the greater the detail to which you plan, the more vulnerable you are to the unexpected, to the uncontrolled, to the irrational turn of events. And the faster we fail, the less useful Ego becomes, and the less useful it feels the more it tears itself apart and adds to the maelstrom of destruction and despair. The greater the shock, next time that we seem so powerless against the nihilistic forces and the ill winds of fate.

What we are seeing almost nightly on our TV screens is a form of collective madness. We are on the couch, and it’s time to talk it out with a competent analyst. All egos are ultimately at the mercy of their shadows, dutifully raising demons from under every stone turned, like the headlines of the Daily Mail. It’s only compassion that spares us, a recognition we are not machines and that for life to have meaning we must recognise and value more our ability to transcend the material, or at the very least to temper its excesses with the better side of human nature.

When events shock us, it’s tempting always to turn to the machine for answers. Through it we calculate our responses, plan future contingencies, establish means of mitigation. But when the shock hits, it’s better to set our machine thoughts aside, if only for a moment for a moment, to remember we are not robots, that it’s better sometimes we say nothing for a while, and simply reach out and hold someone. It’s a long shot, believing in a reactive transformation that will eventually eradicate the dark stain from the zeitgeist, but if enough of us can respond to extraordinary events with compassion, empathy and a degree of stillness, it’s at least a start in the right direction.

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