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white coppice cottages

The White Coppice Cottages

Sometimes we get stuck in a groove, doing the same old things, visiting the same old places, but even when we think we know a place well, there is still the opportunity for fresh discovery, always another path we can take.

So today we’re tackling the Black Coppice Quarries, just a short walk from the lovely hamlet of White Coppice, nestling in a fold at the edge of the  West Pennine Moors. I have not done this particular route before. It will eventually deliver us up to trackless expanse of moor, one that’s vaguely familiar to me, but by a kind of back door, and I’m not sure where to go after that. It’s past mid afternoon, and these February days are short, shadows already lengthening. It’s not the best time for mucking about but I’m sure we’ll be okay.

great hill from the white coppice cairn

Anglezarke Moor

It’s a little used route and all too soon vanishes into a lonely amphitheatre of gritstone crag and scree that echoes strangely. We choose a likely looking ridge, clear of the precipice – just a faint path worn through the heather, enough to inspire confidence we are not merely following sheep. The afternoon is clear, the sunshine almost warm. The outlook from the ridge is spectacular with vistas across lush green farmland running down to the Lancashire plain, and the sea glittering beyond. The light is tending towards amber now, the sun about to send shadows leaping from the ditches and hedgerows.

unfinished millstone above the quarries at white coppice

Abandoned millstone – Anglezarke Moor

We pick up the line of a stout fence that bounds the precipice and, after a breathy climb, delivers us up to Anglezarke Moor. There’s a megalithic structure just here, a rock slab tilted up a little from the horizontal, resting on stones. It doesn’t look much but an archaeological survey in the eighties has it down as a chambered cairn – a bronze age burial.

I’m not sure. That the moor hereabouts is also dotted with abandoned Millstones lends sufficient room for doubt. Some are in their earliest stages of manufacture, just a few taps of the chisel, others almost finished, evidence of months of labour in the wide open, all wasted when the market collapsed.

So, is this an ancient burial, or a stone merely propped up, ready to be worked by quarrymen? The ancients favoured west facing escarpments for their funerary rites, which makes this the perfect spot, ritualised daily by the setting sun. Romanticism and geomancy favour the former then, but there’s still magic in the latter, all be it of a lesser vintage. Imagination swells to fill the blanks, adds layers of psyche to the deadness of mere geography, and we wonder,….

grain pole hill

Grain Pole Hill

But speaking of the sun, time is short, so we head towards Grain Pole Hill, some nine hundred feet above the sea, distinguished from the moor by its dark cap of heather above the paler whispering grasses. There’s no path here and the grass is deeply hummocked – a tough stretch, heavy on the legs and sweaty now, but not far until we gain the easier going of the ridge that takes us more swiftly south, to the summit.

There was a summit cairn here, a stone man, visible for miles. I once spent an afternoon tidying him up, raising him to a shapely little cone. But he’s gone now, and so have the stones – not merely fallen aside, but spirited away, perhaps one by one by pilgrims heading east, to the shaggy dome of Hurst Hill and the newly massive cairn that’s been raised there. The stone men move around up here, you see? And the ways they mark shift slowly over time.

way cairn

Waycairn – Anglezarke

The day is too short to visit Hurst Hill. Maybe next time. Instead, we discover a newly raised cairn to the south and from here we make out a route taking us west, downhill, into the sun, picking its way along a line of trial shafts – bell-pits most likely – just dimples in the moor now, like a run of aerial bombing craters. They are surrounded by the spoil thrown up, and there’s lush green grass, in contrast to the normal dun colour of the moor. Already ancient at the time of the first ordnance surveys, they straddle a fault line where minerals are manifested in the earth by unimaginable pressures. They have found lead here, also Barium, Galena, Witherite and Copper,…

But nowadays this line of shafts serves only to lead us unerringly down to Moor Road, to the access point by Siddow Fold. It’s a promising little path, attractive in its turns and in its timeless use of cairns, set against the sky to guide. But these old stone men have a habit of moving about, so its as well to have a feel for the land yourself, taking their advice if they’re of a mind to give it, while not relying on them too much, because they may not be there next time.

watermans

Waterman’s Cottage – Anglezarke

The little road snakes us down to the tip of the Anglezarke reservoir, to the Waterman’s mock Tudor Cottage, once such a lure for the camera with its reflections in black water, and still a pretty subject but looking now like it’s in need of work. Here, a long, deep-puddled path takes us back to White Coppice. The light is golden, the shadows running, and the air stilling down in preparation for the coming of darkness. We have not walked more than three miles, but it’s a journey that’s opened up fresh avenues in the dense forest of imagination.

In certain esoteric philosophies it is said we are destined to repeat our lives over and over, word for word, step by step, unless we can wake up to the process sufficient to say, hold on, what about this path over here? So we should always keep an eye open for the paths we have overlooked. No matter how well we think we know a place, there’s always something else to be gleaned. Like those mysteriously moving stone men, we just shift our focus a bit, and our lives, like the land under our feet takes on an unsuspected freshness, newly rich in meaning and direction.

path to white coppice

To White Coppice – West Pennines

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the outsider

The Outsider is another thrilling read from one of Britain’s best known, best selling authors. It’s filled with intrigue, betrayal and danger. It’s also his autobiography, and as such is especially interesting to other writers. Even writers like me.

I mean – how the hell did he do it?

He wrote his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, because he was down on his luck and needed the money. I was once in a similar bind, stuck in a job that was shedding its workforce year on year. It was only a matter of time before I was potted. I needed an exit, and fast. So I wrote the Singing Loch and posted it off in naive expectation. It was rejected at every turn and has never made a bean.

The story of how the Jackal was published illustrates how getting picked up by the big-boys takes more than just a good manuscript. All writers come to this conclusion eventually. What we do about it comes down to sheer grit and self belief, or we decide not to bother and do something else. Me? I avoided the potting, and have never needed the money. Fair dos.

Fluent in five languages, he was flying Vampire jets with the RAF at 19. He began a career in journalism, got mixed up in the Nigerian civil war, at odds with the official pro Nigerian line. He’s been shot at, mortared, strafed by a Mig, and more than once fired by the BBC. He’s been an occasional odd job man for HM’s security services, and was once seduced by an amorous Stasi agent who was supposed to be tailing him. Politically well to the right of centre, outspokenly traditionalist, Conservative, and euro-sceptic, Freddie and I are clearly not natural bedfellows but, through his stories at least, I find him good company.

So anyway,… the day of the Jackal was hacked out under pressing financial circumstances, then did the rounds, but like the Singing Loch it got nowhere. Unlike me, Forsyth weighed up the situation and reckoned you had to skip the publisher’s slush pile and find a direct way to the top otherwise you were stuffed. Through his circle of contacts, he established nodding terms with an editor, sufficient to bluster into the guy’s office one day on pretext of a social visit, oh and – while I’m here what do you think of this? The result was a three book deal. The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War made up the other two. Forsyth was suddenly a professional novelist making a lot of money.

The lesson for other would-be writers here is obvious. Simply dropping your manuscript through a publisher’s letterbox, the odds of it getting far enough up the chain of command to make a difference are about the same as coming up on the lottery. You  need good contacts and a lot of brass neck. For those with both the talent and the connections, it’s still possible to make money from your writing, but for those without, the choice is smashing your head against a brick wall, or self publishing.

The title, “The Outisder” refers to a particular frame of mind that always puts one outside events, makes us an observer of life and a withdrawer to the silence of a closed room, and the space to think, to write. That’s me too, but not all writers are known as writers, our outsiderly ways forgiven on account of the tangible goal of the next best-seller. Some of us aren’t even known as writers at all.

My life’s path rarely takes me out of Lancashire, let alone Britain. My vision is macroscopic, seeking a life and interest in the parochial details of the humdrum. No guns, no knives, no steely eyed assassins, nor beautiful Stasi agents. Yet I am a writer. I can’t help it. More than that I am a novelist, in so far as I am a person who writes novels, though I’d never say so out loud. I suppose it’s that “success” thing, and how you measure it. No sense calling yourself a writer to people’s faces without anything tangible to show for it, like maybe be a best seller or two, and a Jag on the drive to prove your net worth.

But life is also about understanding what you’ve got, changing what you can if you feel you must, and making peace with whatever you feel you cannot. I think few men would object to being seduced by a greater number of beautiful women than has been the case, but being strafed by a Mig? That would probably have been the last straw for me, followed by a one way ticket back home to the quiet and comfort of my Lancashire bolt-hole. Nope. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s most striking, throughout reading Forsyth’s life story, is his confidence, his courage and his total self belief. In addition to his obvious talents as a writer, that’s how the hell he did it.

 

 

 

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marniesnipI’m not imagining it, am I? I mean, how we used to dress up for shopping in town on a Saturday afternoons. Dad would wear a clean shirt and a tie, Mum a nice dress and lipstick. And it wasn’t a class thing. My parents were poor.

I’ve seen a hundred movie actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Era on Main Street: Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, or so it seemed to me as a kid, those fine ladies all clickety clacking in their long heels and their big, shiny hair. They weren’t rich either, just your regular mill girls all done up and dignified, and proud. This would have been in the sixties, I suppose, maybe the early seventies.

Rose tinted vision perhaps? Sure, I get that, but there’s no denying it’s different now. I look out of the window of this little bookshop and I see people are – pretty much all of them – dishevelled, crushed, some even a little drunk, though it’s just past lunch.

There are no movie stars on Main Street any more. Our role models offer us no promise of magic, or escape, only this insufferable grunge, and all the time our noses rubbed into it and a cynical voice-over telling us it will never get any better this.

Me? I still pretend. I’ve been doing it all my life.

Right now I’m pretending to be this bookish, tweedy hipster – Chinos, casual jacket, button-down Oxford shirt, and shiny brogues. I’m Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Or for those of you a little older, I’m Anthony Hopkins in Charing Cross Road. Either way it’s an act. I’m not doing it because I’m expecting Julia Roberts or Anne Bancroft to drop in any time soon. It just gets me out of bed in the morning, and it’s somewhere warm to sit without using up the Calor in the van.

A slow stagger of drunks has spilled out of the pub up the top of Chapel Street, what the council’s now somewhat euphemistically calling the ‘Northern Quarter’. It makes it sound like a chic Parisian hot-spot, but the pub – the Malting House they call it now – is the same seedy old ale-house it always was, cheap booze, sticky carpets and vomit on the step, a questionable choice for continuity with a bygone era. I’d rather we’d hung on to Woolworth’s – always something cosy about Woolies – but the Malting House is chosen to be our past, our present, and it seems now our future.

The drunks are shouting – all of them women, tight dresses, boobs spilling out, fag-raw voices. They sound aggressive, like they’re spoiling for a fight, but as I listen, I realise they’re only having a conversation, something about meeting up again, tomorrow.

‘Yea right then, see yer love,’

‘See yer,..’

‘See yer,..”

It’s a simple enough exchange, but it takes a while and they swear a lot while struggling to light up, drawing comically sideways on their cigarettes. Not pretty, is it? Is this really what we have become, we plucky Brits? We ninety nine percenters?

There’s a ‘bigger shoe’ guy pacing out his pitch, the same small square of street, hour after hour, his plaintive call the sound-track to my days. It’s a new guy, late middle age, pockmarked face, his boredom lifted only by the occasional passing abuse on account of his foreignness. I don’t know his story, but picture him as one of those escaping by a hair’s breadth the mess we’ve made of the world, while those who stirred up the mess don’t have to look him in the eye all the time like I do. I reckon he makes a tenner a day for his trouble, if he’s lucky. I’ve yet to a buy a magazine from him. In truth I’m embarrassed to be even marginally better off. Luck, these days, is relative.

Opposite, in the doorway of the empty shop, there’s been a homeless person these past few weeks. There’s a couple of them up by the church, and one on the carpark now. The person opposite is shapeless in a dozen layers, feet and legs immersed in a sleeping bag that’s bursting stuffing from one corner. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. You always get a lot of rough sleepers in the cities, I know, but it’s spreading into the provincial market towns now, and each one seems to me like a canary dropping from its perch in warning.

‘The dog starved at the rich man’s gate,’ and all that.

Odd still to be quoting Blake. It’s like we’ve learned nothing in two hundred years. Indeed if anything we are evolving backwards into a darker age even than the one he knew.

Maggs emerges from the back room, whiff of perfume – Le Jardin, I think. I had a girl who was fond of that, ended badly though.

“Just off then, Mike.”

“Righto Maggs. See you later.”

She’s wearing the green dress today. Suits it. I presume it’s fitted. She’s rather pear shaped, chunky in the thigh, but the dress makes a virtue of it. Snug jeans wouldn’t be her thing at all. Apologies for the crass objectification, but she’s a difficult one to know as a person, therefore gives me little choice. And it’s been a slow day in the bookshop.

“Be nice to have lunch together sometime,” she says. “I mean, if we can ever get Alan to turn up when he should, then he can take over for a bit. What do you say?”

“Yes Maggs. That would be lovely.”

I’m not sure if it would or not. Actually, I’d probably find it awkward, I mean socialising with Maggs.

“Sure you’re all right minding the shop?”

“No problem. Sandwich in my bag.” Minding the shop, is, after all, what I’m here to do.

“Okay, so,.. see you later then.”

And she’s off, usually for coffee and a Pannini in the Market Cafe. There’s not much by way of haute cuisine in Middleton. Never has been.

I don’t know much about Maggs – she’s the boss, and that’s about it. She’s married, judging by the rings – full house: engagement, wedding and an ostentatious eternity which suggests a certain longer term stability, if somewhat boldly overstated. I suspect she has no children, because there’s nothing more women like boring you with than the endless insignificant achievements of their offspring, and she’s never mentioned any.

Apologies again.

It must, actually, be quite nice to have children. Mine would be grown up by now of course, lives of their own. A positive achievement to have created life, but also rather a knife to one’s throat, then to see that life suffer.

She likes long heels, I note. Invented by a man, presumably, in order to create that accentuated roll of the hips, which is pleasing to the eye, but very much out of place in Middleton these days. And what with her hair, wound up tight like Tippi Hedren in Marnie,… she stands out more than I’d be comfortable doing in a town like this.

The drunk women are still taking leave of one another, they cast her a sideways glance as she wafts by.

“Who does she think she is then?”

They don’t actually say it out loud, but I was a good salesman in my day, which involves a lot of mind-reading, and I know they’re thinking it.

I watch as she clacks away and the crowds fold over her. Such an attractive down in the nape of her neck, I’ve noticed. Yes, Maggs still has the movie star quality, at least she would have, back in the day when hips were the thing.

A coin is dropped into the homeless person’s hat. There’s a myth, perpetuated by the aspirant one percenters, and their various fetid orifi that beggars go home each night to nice houses and cars. But truth is not the same as belief, and we should be careful what we are led to believe.

I think on this for a moment, take out my notebook and jot down the observation. It’s not an especially profound revelation, but small things are important these days.

Truth and belief.

I resolve to meditate upon it.

 

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i chingSo far as I can work out, finding the centre of one’s self is to attain a state of mind in which we are able to view our selves at the centre of a universe rich in personal meaning. We identify events in the external world as reflections of currents within our own psyche. We feel a detachment, virtue of a transcendent perspective, while also sensing our interconnectedness with the universe and everything in it.

We seek signs, symbols, messages of personal guidance, for clues to guide our way, and we receive them – or at the very least we are comfortable in suspending disbelief and acting upon irrational sixth-sensical notions. Everywhere, and everything becomes alive, numinous, our lives suddenly enriched with a sense of purpose and meaning. We feel calm, awed by the beauty and the mystery of both the inner and the outer worlds.

There are many labels for such a state of mind – pathological, perhaps, but more positively, we could call it living the religious life, or we might call it “Dao” or the “the way”, or in more contemporary terms we might call it living magically. Living the magical life we are armoured against calamity. This is not to say misfortune does not befall us, more that we are not harmed by it, psychologically, emotionally, in the same way. We are also less likely to create calamity for ourselves by unskillful ways of thinking and being.

But the journey to the centre is not a straight line. We circle inwards some way towards it, then back out again, gaining and then losing this cosmic perspective as the ego’s dominance over us waxes and wanes. But each time we circle in, we approach a little more towards the centre. Thus we progress in a spiralling, cyclical manner. Each cycle might take a year, or a decade – there is no way of knowing for sure, and no certain method for gaining progress or holding onto it. We move when we are ready. And when the cycle turns back to winter, there is nothing we can do but shield our flame in anticipation of the storms to come, while trusting in the more fruitful season’s eventual return.

I came upon my own guide to this phenomenon by chance in a book called the Yijing, or Book of Changes. It’s not the only guide. There have been many down the ages, and the one that’s right for each of us will show itself when we’re ready for it. The Yijing has a powerful mythic and symbolic underpinning, and through its use we learn the art of acting powerfully by not acting at all, other than by correctly interpreting and negotiating change. Through this art we come to understand our position within a pattern of existential dynamics, a flow of time – the times when we have influence but don’t realise it, and the times when we think we have it, but don’t. It requires a suspension of disbelief, a humble spirit and a faith in the generally benign nature of the universe – but these are not easy things to hold onto in a world as materialistic and cynical as ours.

It was a favourite of the hippy generation, but we can trace its origins back to China’s Neolithic period and the proto-writings of the Shang dynasty. It first came to the west in late Victorian times through the missionary James Legge, but was largely ignored. It came again in 1923 in a German translation, thanks to another missionary, the great sinologist, Richard Wilhelm, and was championed by Carl Jung who recognised its power as a psycho-analytical tool. A later English translation of the Wilhelm edition appeared in 1950 and is still in print. It’s this version you are still most likely to find in bookshops today.

Every generation has reinvented the Yijing somewhat, re-purposed it to its own times, its own myths and symbols. I collected as many versions of it I could find and boiled them down into my own interpretation, which I laboured over long and lovingly, and still use.

After a promising start though, and a significant change in direction as a result of the book’s counsel, I lost my way with it as a consequence of ego reasserting itself and demanding to know how the book worked. And then, as time, passed, ego began questioning my use of it on rational grounds, effectively calling me a new-age flake, and to get a grip.

To be sure, taking the lid off the Yijing is like opening Pandora’s box. You will never understand how it works, and greater minds than mine have been broken by it. To try is to fall into it and then its alchemical vortices will suck you down and tear you limb from limb. But ego tries, because it must, it abandons humility and loses the centre, is recoiled full circle, leaving us bruised and bleeding, the egoic, “poor me”, cast out once more into the demon plagued wilderness of the old life, the old way of thinking. And there we languish, vulnerable once more to the mortal woundings of every day calamity.

But then the season of the heart changes, and we pick it up again, blow the dust from it, somewhat chastised, and seek to remake the old connections. The book is hesitant, testing us for sincerity, but slowly lets us back in and we resume the journey.

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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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man writingInteresting article, here, about the “highbrow” literary genre and a lament that writers of this kind of stuff are abandoning the basics of story writing in favour of a kind of avant garde expressionism. By basics we mean any semblance of plot structure.

It’s a vulnerable niche, this highbrow stuff, it being economically worthless, but there are Arts’ Council grants to support it, I presume because it’s still considered culturally important. This amazes me – I mean that grants for any sort of writing exist at all, and how the hell do I apply for one? But why should we subsidise stuff hardly anybody reads, and aren’t those arty writers all just taking the Mickey anyway?

Being an amateur hack this is all well above my pay grade of course, but it does seem to be expecting a lot of the poor reader. Tackling a book void of plot is like ploughing through heavy seas without sail or tiller. It has me wondering if actually reading such stuff is no longer the goal, that the target market is the more the kind of person who prefers simply to own a work by an edgy writer so they can say so at posh parties.

I prefer a story myself to a mere assault of words. If a writer has a “literary” point to make, better they do so by sneaking it in under the radar, so to speak, than hitting the poor reader over the head with it. Stories rest on a framework we call the plot. A plot simply means we have some characters, and they start out in one place, then set out to get somewhere else, but things happen along the way to prevent them. Success is thwarted, calamity drawing ever nearer until it seems all but impossible we shall ever have our denouement. Psychologically speaking, plots rise from the archetypal bedrock of humanity, a phenomenon that gives rise to mythic culture, which is why stories have a universal resonance, so they shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also why machines will never write good stories.

The plot rules, as I learned them in the long ago, are simple enough: get things going in a certain direction, then set up the conflicts and have the characters fall into them. How the characters handle themselves, how they resolve the conflicts and get on with the story is where a writer gets to say whatever else they have to say – the moral, the literary points, whatever; they are also the hook that keeps the reader turning the pages.

Soap opera plotlines are an endless chain of conflict and resolution, almost comically so – every long awaited wedding morphing seamlessly into adultery, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve missed a dozen episodes or drop out after the next one because there’s never going to be a conclusion – the psychology of the plot drives the whole thing endlessly. Soaps are, literally, pointless, yet still manage to hook millions of viewers for a couple of hours every night. Such is the power of the plot!

Unlike Soap however, with a piece of fiction, a reader expects a conclusion, so we give them one, the conflict/resolution thing having a sort of trajectory, aimed towards a climactic moment when all seems lost and then,… bang! The murderer is revealed, the baddie gets their comeuppance and the good-guy/gal either gets the good-girl/guy,… or they don’t.

I suppose the counter argument is that plot rules make for formulaic fiction, that it’s a dumb way to write, and allows for little by way of airy fairyness. But they’re only guidelines, not really rules, and while I make no claims for possessing sufficient intellect to handle the airy fairy heights of contemporary “edgy” literature, I’ve found traditional plotting allows for endless subtle interpretation, enabling any means of expression while still respecting the reader, leading them in with guile, even shamelessly seducing them with a bit of romance and adventure, rather than standing there for two hundred thousand words, roaring like a lion and hurling bricks. The latter approach might lend us a fearsome reputation among literary critics for a while, but it only takes one of them to call us out as a pretentious old windbag and we’re sunk.

I don’t know what passes for high-brow fiction these days, but I can certainly understand some of the stuff I’ve read in the past struggling to get a look in when most of us would rather fiddle with our phones of an evening. But if it’s culturally important something is written it shouldn’t matter that it’s no longer economically viable in print form, and the obvious place for it is online. Publication is guaranteed, but an audience is less certain because it’s a sea of words out there and easy to find yourself becalmed.

It doesn’t have the same author-in-a-tweed-jacket vibe, I know, but the times they are a-changing, and if attention is switching from books to smartphones – that’s where the words should follow because that’s where the readers have gone. We abandoned papyrus scrolls and vellum, and typewriters each in their turn, long ago. Perhaps we should not be so squeamish about abandoning paper too.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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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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