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loversI took a dip into the world of Instagram poetry, fell promptly headlong into the purple prose of a million broken hearts. Clearly I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young. To be sure it’s a terrible thing, this compulsion we have to seek completion in another human being, and to have them seek a reciprocal completion in us. And like all compulsions it’s such a rich ground for disaster, for rejection, for betrayal, for the object of one’s desire not to return one’s feelings, or even know one exists. Okay,… so I’ve been there, written plenty for that genre in the past. Fortunately though there was no Internet in those days and a Boots’ diary had to suffice.

If I’d had the Internet back than, it would have been tempting of course to lay my heart bare, as many young ‘uns obviously do today, either as a plea for mercy, revenge against the one who did or did not love me, or as a beating of my chest and gnashing of teeth to Aphrodite. But I’d also like to think even my younger self would have recognised the indignity in such a thing. When relationships backfire, for whatever reason, and no matter how mouthy or cutting the other party gets, a gentleman is always better keeping his own counsel.

This is not to say love is not a beautiful thing, for a man in love sees the world differently. He can describe it from a heightened state of consciousness, a world that bears no resemblance to the same one described through shades of depression. But try as I might I could not find poetry like that on Instagram, only the petulant and possibly inebriated jottings of a million midnight Bridget Jones’s, lamenting the ups and downs (mainly downs) of their thing for Mr Darcy. As a forum for my own words then, I feel somewhat out of place, a veritable crustacean tiptoeing through a frightful wail of the fretful and the tenderly aged.

My apologies if one of those bleeding heart poems was yours, but I can assure you, at some point you’ll get hitched, you’ll find “the one” and hopefully have children with them, and then your life will change. You’ll have other things to worry about, to pine about, to cry about, and if you still possess the urge, it’s thus the poetry will change throughout the summer and the autumn and finally the winter of your life.

Like those teens posting their fevered “I love you’s”, it’s still a desire for connection, for completion that drives us in later life. But the love felt by youth is more a cunning deceit of Nature to get us to pair off and make babies. What we seek to connect with, actually, we find only to a small degree in others, and the younger we are the more we are likely to mistake it for the real thing and grow dissatisfied by it. The real thing is the mystery of Nature itself, the mystery of life. The hunt for it is an existential quest, and there are no reliable pathways leading to it from the material world. Instead, we must rely on imagination, conjuring up those parts of ourselves we would perhaps otherwise be afraid to be seen out with in public.

The love poem is of infinite value to its author of course, but unless it opens the reader up to more than the author’s misery, there is little of broader worth in it, only the author’s future embarrassment when things finally pick up and he looks back on the bad times. I’m glad I kept mine private.

For me the poet is someone wandering that great tideline of the world after the ebb. Indeed a beach is the ultimate metaphor for this mysterious liminal zone, the mysterious line between reality and imagination. Now and then we come across a curiosity washed up, say a bit of smooth-worn driftwood. We revel in its shape and its exquisite feel as we turn it in our hands. We cannot describe the forces that have shaped it, yet in the feel of it we intuit the nature of something divinely beautiful, far beyond our understanding. Then we turn to our companion, our imaginary reader, and we say “Wow, what do you think of this?”

Relationships confer a degree of self reflection, but it’s not the essential thing. After all, there’s no point being in love if you’re rendered suddenly blind to everything else that’s going on.

Oh my heart is like a red-red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June,
If I could only say the same for yours,
I’d be humming a different tune.

Bu-Bum.

 

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With the going of the light, and the fast fading memory of summer’s ease, Black Dog comes stalking once again. We toss him a stick, some stupid novelty or other, which he returns sodden and chewed beyond attraction. Thus, after a couple of turns, we are no longer minded to pick it up, so there he curls, our unshakeable friend, creeping ever closer until he’s in our lap, weighting down all possibility of forward movement.

Words fail in our throats, people look strange, look also strangely at us as we sink into paranoia at the apparent indifference, even of our loved ones. In pettiness, we withdraw, lose empathy, and equanimity as we huddle in imaginary self defence. We become then the worst of ourselves, favouring the lonely places, or the indoors, the impersonal, the pointless flicking at our phones,  the mindless digestion of the indigestible, the foolish, and the vain.

The soundtrack to our lives deepens to despair as Gorecki displaces once more the Red Priest from the player. A symphony of sorrowful songs de-tunes the cellos from their once ravishing Baroque concertos, splits the lustrous age-old wood, breaks the bows, shape-shifts rosin into a cold slime, and bends the dead strings into the intersecting snail-trails of man’s infinite inhumanity.

The filters of filth fail us, and we are overwhelmed by the madness of the world again, no longer able to blind-eye its deep vales of deceit, its mountains of depravity. And we see the leaders naked, as they truly are perhaps, lost or mad or utterly grotesque, letting loose their policemen, black-armoured cockroach armies to hammer blood from dissent.

Black Dog, your visions are cruel, rendered bearable only by the numbing fragrance of your breath. You are the rot of crushed leaves, the rot of wood dissolved to crumb by cringe-legged beetling lice, you are the perennial black mould on the wallpaper above my desk, you are the scratching in the night, and the sinister rustling of an infestation of mice.

We brush down our books in vain, our books of dreams, of alchemy, of transcendentalism, yet, once treasured, we find them mould-stained and dusty, and scented of you, taking with them the key to the only escape we knew, to the vast labyrinth of the esoteric. Now there is only the unsoftened day ahead, each to be taken in its turn. Thus we answer each half-lit morn the alarm clock’s shrill call, rise, stretch our stiffening limbs, pee out our aching bladder.

Is this really the only way? But what of those moments when we shook you from our lap and soared? Those days we rattled the high roads while the beatific sun beat down and tanned our faces? Where were you then? Or the glad beach-days with the soft sand and the multitudinous shades of ocean blue? Or coffee, and company, and that gentle hand to hold? Where were you then?

But these are earthly things for sure and transient as mist, the meagre sticks we toss, then you’ll chase and allow us a moment to breathe. What we seek now is the secret of another kind of cultivation, and the ability to cast it an infinite distance away.

Then go,… Fetch!

Damn you.

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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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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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man writing

Eve of September at half past ten,
Dark at the window,
I see my face
Reflected in isolation again.
Withheld from grace and the subtle path,
Eluding with ease my inadequate craft.

 

 

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requiemSo, I drove into town this afternoon. I had no plan, just wanted a change of scene. I was feeling reflective, a little down, in need of space. I purchased a charging cable for my iPad (original) £4.99 from B+M Bargains. The last one I bought, years ago, cost me twenty quid. Then it was the charity shops, St Catherine’s – easily the best book shop in town, where I picked up Dylan Thomas’ Miscellany One for a pound, ditto Proulx’s Postcards. Then I checked out Age Concern, picked up “The Visible World” by Mark Slouka, and “The Statement” by Brian Moore. It was three for a pound, but I couldn’t find a third, so we’ll say fifty pence each. All told four books for three quid, and a charging cable for a fiver. No one can accuse me of being high maintenance. None of this is relevant.

Actually, my mind has been elsewhere since Friday morning when I learned of the death of an early mentor, a great man the world has never heard of. I knew him best for a year, commencing Winter ’81, through to the Summer of ’82. It’s hard to describe the depth of the connection, nor the awakening into my personal adulthood it presaged. I was twenty one, he was ten years older, an engineer of the first rank, yet a man who’d left school at fourteen unable to read or write. His is the stuff of legend, and inspiration.

When I met him he was a C Eng and member of the venerable Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Astute, courageous, married with a young family, he was everything I aspired to be. We were solving problems in fluid dynamics, trying to equate the physical results we were seeing with theoretical concepts. I was a dullard with maths, until I met him. He joined the dots for me, woke me up to my career. Sadly though I reflect that nowadays someone leaving school at fourteen, illiterate, has no means of bettering themselves – the ladder has been kicked away. He would be considered unemployable now.

But academia aside, he was also a deeply sympathetic man, fatherly, the sort of man who managed to make an insecure twenty one year old lad he’d never met before feel he was worth something, set him down on a path I’ve been following pretty much since those early days. I became a C. Eng myself at twenty six. I would not have bothered had it not been for him. His was the mark I set for myself.

He studied philosophy and psychology later on, and though I’d lost touch with him by then, I think there was still a subliminal connection. This was in the late nineties, around the time I discovered Jung, and the worthlessness of that C. Eng. Even though I was no longer working with him, he was still an influence in many unexpected ways, and I often thought of him.

He retired early, first decade of the millennium, a bit of a square peg in a round hole by then, having grown to the point of seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes, and calling it out for what it was. None contested his going – the truth is often uncomfortable to those who cannot see it. He fell ill with MS shortly thereafter, and suffered a long, debilitating decline, ending with complete immobility and cancer of the lung. I’m told he maintained an unassailable optimism and enthusiasm for life throughout, and is on record as saying how little one actually needs in life to be profoundly happy.

What shook me was the news that in later years he had become a prolific poet. I wish I had made more of an effort, beyond simply asking after his health and passing on my regards through others. I’m sure there was much we could have shared.

He gained precious little time from his retirement. Few remembered him from the old place, just the lifers like me. When I heard the news, I took myself into a side room where I could be quiet for a while, and there I wept. It was for more than his passing, which I felt keenly enough, but also for a sense of lost opportunity. I have often thought about him, gratitude for his kindness, and his presence during that formative period of my life.

I’m not sure what will happen to his poems – if they will ever see the light of day or not. He never owned a computer, never discovered the internet, his intellect unsullied by it, and none the worse. As a man  I loved him, that much is plain. He was the coolest guy on earth, but I remember him with his bushy moustache, his long hair and his sport’s coat, not as he was at sixty six, and looking ninety, his body knackered, distorted into indignity with MS, only the smile recognisable as belonging to the soul I knew and connected with all those years ago.

God rest you man. Those were the days, indeed. The decades since have felt like I’ve been biding my time for something else, but news of your passing reminds me there is nothing else to come, that this is it.

Flipping through the books I bought, though it’s it’s way past midnight and I should be abed, I realise don’t know Dylan Thomas very well. His opening to a Miscellany is a kind of stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Joyce. But I like the Celtic voice and I’ll hear him out, though no doubt with minimal understanding. The years slip by so easily now, so quickly and each one seeming the same and bringing nothing new, it’s incredible the years ’81 and ’82 could have contained so much its remained with me and proved to be of such intensity it was wept out in a private moment some thirty five years later.

I drove home from town with the top up on the Mazda. I did not care to drop it, though the afternoon was fine and warm. I’m wondering about my last blog piece, describing my novel’s drift into polyamory. I read a poem my mentor wrote, and it shames me with its effortless prowess. I’m sure he would have put me straight, like he did with those equations years ago, set me on a surer path.

I need to get my head together much better than this.

Thanks for listening.

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trio - giorgioni - 1510So, boy meets girl, boy meets another girl. The other girl meets the first girl and while he’s still thinking about what each of them means to him, the girls fall in love with each other, while both still being attracted to the boy. Thus, the boy doesn’t necessarily lose them both by his dithering, because the girls have a plan. He can enter into a polyamorous relationship with them, if he wants. So, will he or won’t he? Or, more to the point: should he or shouldn’t he?

It’s an unusual scenario, some might go so far as to say unlikely in real life, and I’d be one of them, except it does happen. What’s interesting about it is it reveals love as a more richly nuanced thing than is suggested by the traditional mythology of the one true love, and the eternal soul-mate thing. Somehow the jealousy and the exclusivity inherent in the one-on-one relationship is dissolved by love itself. Egos are transcended, rendering the presence of an intimate additional “other” not only psychologically acceptable, but essential in creating a uniquely robust and profoundly rewarding, life-enhancing relationship. Or so the theory goes.

My problem in trying to write about it is it’s never happened to me, nor would I particularly relish the prospect – not out of disapproval, but more that I would probably, in all honesty, find it impossibly confusing. That said, it’s a motif that’s popped up a couple of times in my stories so I’m obviously intrigued by it.

I don’t mean the sexual mechanics. There’s plenty to satisfy one’s curiosity in those terms elsewhere online. No, it’s not so much what happens in the bedroom that’s interesting as what exchanges take place over the tea table, say after a twelve hour working day when everyone’s tired and stressed and the washing up still needs doing and the bins need taking out. How would it mesh emotionally? Could it really produce something positive and stable into old age, or would it disintegrate into acrimony even faster than a conventional relationship? Or might it be an advantage, a third pair of hands, especially now in a society when two partners busting their guts on minimum wage are still struggling to make ends meet? Could it be that what we need now in order to beat a system that’s increasingly stacked against us, is a bigger matrimonial team?

I suppose like any relationship, it comes down to the individuals and the chemistry between them.

When I write, I let my characters develop without actively plotting. Loosely translated, this means I make it up as I go along, and this occasionally lands me in an emotional paradox or a plot maze from which there’s no plausible escape – and this may be one of them. A poly-amorous threeway is a hard sell in polite society, because there’s always going to be a suspicion one of the three is being taken for a mug, while another is having everyone’s cake and eating it.

I’ve only followed through once, in the Lavender and the Rose, but that was an odd story of blurred time-lines, ciphers, dreams and ambiguous identities, where the past informed the present, and vice versa and characters crossed from one historical period to the other, being both real and unreal at the same time. With all that going on, a bit of polyamory was the least challenging thing I was asking the reader to swallow.

But I’ve run into it again in the Sea View Cafe, the current work in progress, a single time-line, contemporary romance, in post BREXIT Britain – no room to hide in the fuzzy sanctuary of fantasy. Both women and the guy are looking to protect each other amid a creeping zeitgeist of bigotry, lawlessness, inhumanity and near societal collapse – yes I’m a bit of a Remoaner. The polyamory thing came up unexpectedly, an unlikely solution to the old “obstacles to love” chestnut, but there you go.

Which girl does he choose? Well, stuff that, say the girls, we choose each other but he can join in with us if he wants because actually we still quite fancy him. Yes, I’m expecting the reader to accept that as plausible, but we’re not really there yet. Having the women in charge removes the danger of accusations of misogynistic abuse, but what it doesn’t avoid is the danger of puerile male sexual fantasy. And I don’t think that’s what this is about. So what is it about?

Well, polyamory is not like swinging. In the swinging relationship, couples exchange partners for casual sex, and the relationships thus formed are not intended to be long lasting. Polyamory is different, it operates at a deeper emotional level. Operating as a closed, long-term relationship, all the needs of the individuals – emotional and sexual, are met within the group, which forms a safe, exclusive zone of love and trust and loyalty. But perhaps the defining characteristic, as with a conventional relationship, is that the loss of one partner, be it to death or infidelity, would be devastating to the whole – or at least that’s the way it’s turning out in the Sea View Cafe.

For now I’m hung on up on the plausibility of it and it’s slowing me down, but as one of the protagonists, Helena, keeps challenging me: what is plausible about the times we live in, Michael? Who could have dreamed up the headlines we are assailed with on a daily basis now, even so little as five years ago. And if we are to survive this tumultuous era is it not essential we become much more open and flexible in our thinking?

Until a decade ago it seemed we were making great strides in creating a more open and inclusive society. If our response now to the economic decline and political disruption of the west is no more sophisticated than a reversion to social conservatism, we have much darker days to come. But a loss of wealth and global significance need not result also in a decline in emotional intelligence and a narrowing of minds, though sadly those headlines suggest the contrary. Only an ever greater openness and a willingness to cooperate will overcome the evils oppressing us, but we’ll also have to ditch our mobile phones, through which small voices and small minds these days are amplified far beyond what is reasonable, manufacturing consent even among intelligent people for much worse things than bending the rules on what love is supposed to be, exactly, and how best to act on it.

As a dream symbol, polyamory can perhaps best be read as a need for us to transcend convention. While of course I do not advocate it, literally, as a solution to society’s ills, what I am coming around to thinking at last as I finish my meanderings through this ponderous blog: dammit, Helena, you’re right. If it moves things in a positive direction,…

Let’s just go for it!

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