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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 sea view cafe - smallMy latest, possibly my last novel, is finished and up on Wattpad now for free. It’ll shortly go up on Smashwords from whom I’ll blag the free ISBN, then put it up on Free Ebooks who seem to be doing a good job of shifting downloads at the moment. And there we are. Finished! About two and a half years – the Sea View Cafe years. The small blue car years, the Scarborough years.

It’s a cliche I know but as ever I’m genuinely grateful to anyone who’s read me or commented on my stuff. Even had it been conventionally published, the Sea View would have made relatively nothing, financially, yet already it’s rewarded me tenfold with those readers who’ve picked it up on Wattpad and commented as I’ve posted chapters piecemeal.

It’s a novel written against shifting times, a story swept up in another iteration of the myth of Britannia’s idiocy and decline and, by association the  decline of the west. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s been an all pervasive narrative for as long as I can remember, and probably for centuries. Yet more than any other, the Sea View Cafe is a story that found itself distorted almost daily in the writing by yet one more headline in  rejection of the progressive ideals of strength in the collective of nations and a fall into a petty nationalism, into racism and bigotry.

Yes, these have been the pre-Brexit years. Years when we have wrapped ourselves snug in the native flag, covering all but our faces which are by turns ugly, pompous and hate filled – ejecting spittle with every sentence uttered. Our collective soul stunted by the recurrence of all manner of shadow complexes.

Some of the most brilliant minds working in Britain are of non-white, non Christian, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Anglo Saxon origin. We are a multi-cultural society, product of our history – not all of it good – but I’d dared to hope we were on the cusp of a rapprochement with our chequered past. Such diversity might have informed our spiritual nature, our secular philosophy – things to be celebrated, built upon, for there can be no surer path to greatness, than by the hybridisation of faith and ideas. And what did we do? We chose the path of the tabloid, of the angry old white crustacean.

Or was it more a case of two fingers to a plutocratic establishment that had done nothing to solve the problems of a lost decade, and looked willing to sacrifice a whole generation of non-privileged youth upon a bonfire of perpetual austerity?

The reasons are complex, but tending in the same direction and manifesting in abject poverty for millions.

And what of women? That much maligned species, scorned, dismissed, defiled by the repugnant male ego. This is strange to me, for I have only the experience of women in my own circle to go on, and they are of strong character, organising, nurturing, building, and gifting love.

So, in the Sea View, we meet strong female leads, not out of any gender political motives – I wouldn’t dare go there – but more simply because that is my experience of women. They are my my aunts, my sisters, my mothers, my grandmothers. Helena Aynslea, Hermione Watts, Carina and Nina and Anica. These are tough women, while remaining entirely feminine, and I hope I’ve done them justice. They carry the Sea View, as they have carried my entire life.

And so what if two of them take a fancy to the same guy, and each other? Let them both have him, and themselves  – all at the same time and be damned – because I hope this is more than a romance, more than a trite polyamory fantasy on my part.

Thus we move beyond the conventional narrative, explode the hell out of the world in order to find ourselves anew. We have to hard-wire it into the collective that it’s okay to be different. Gay, coloured, bisexual, Muslim, Christian, Jew. Female. Intellectual. Shy. Red-haired. In short, diverse. And what we have to code out is the idea we can in any way advance ourselves at the cost of others, that anything which increases ourselves at the cost of diminishing someone else is not only wrong, it is also, ultimately, self-destructive. The young seem to get this and it’s in them I dare to hope.

These are strange times. They haunt me, as they haunt the Sea View. Either they are the end of times, or they’re the rallying call to radicals and progressives everywhere to seriously challenge the archaic and archetypal evils that seem to have snuck in under the radar.

The answer? It’s with all of us.

Awaken.

Oh, I almost forgot, do read the Sea View Cafe if you can bear it! Unedited, unprofessional, and riddled with sneaky typos. It won’t change your life, but it might cheer you up in the mean time! I know I’ve had a lot of pleasure from writing it.

 

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enduring-love.jpgI find Ian McEwan’s novels accessible on a number of levels, like the skins of an onion. You can read him superficially as the writer of intriguing and imaginative stories peopled by entirely believable characters, or you can peel back a few layers and read more deeply about the whys and wherefores of the human condition. And you can keep on peeling back as deep as you like, or in some cases as deep as you dare.

With Enduring Love though I stepped in a puddle early on, was completely wrong footed, possibly because of my own inner workings, but partly also on account of some quite deliberately laid plot red herrings that had me thinking too deeply, or not,.. maybe.

The opening is dramatic enough – innocent strangers drawn suddenly together by a bizarre ballooning accident in which the protagonists leap onto the ropes of a fast ascending balloon in order to save the lives of the balloonist and a child tossed senseless by freak winds. The balloon passengers escape but the would be rescuers hang on to the ropes a moment too long and are carried upwards, each then letting go as the ground falls away and their nerve fails, landing shaken but unhurt – all except for one man carried too high and hanging on until the last, when he falls to his death.

Had all rescuers hung on, the death might have been prevented, or they might all have died. Who knows? But with this opening scene McEwan raises questions about our fallibility and how the every day actions of innocent people can have profoundly disturbing consequences for both themselves and others.

The main protagonist – one of the would-be rescuers – Joe Rose, is a science writer and a deeply rational man. He’s also conflicted, not just by the incident and his involvement in it and his feelings of guilt at the man’s death, but by his job which he has come to see as a parasitic profession when what he really wants is to be a scientist doing real pioneering work instead of just writing up the discoveries of others. After the accident, another of the rescuers, Jed Parry, a young man of almost messianic religious beliefs, begins to stalk Joe, speaking of loving him and wanting to bring Joe to God.

This is where I was legged up by the story, suspecting Joe Rose of being that most sneaky of plot devices, the unreliable narrator, and Parry’s obsessive stalking as basically an invention of Joe’s, that Parry’s coming was in effect a manifestation of Joe’s unresolved inner spirituality come to break his rational materialism which was souring his life. Anything else and the story would for me have simply been a thriller – about an unhinged stalker and how nobody believes his victim until it’s too late. This seemed a little too prosaic, so I congratulated myself on spotting the deceit early on.

More fool me!

Parry leaves frantic messages on Joe’s answer machine – but Joe deletes them so he cannot offer them as proof of Parry’s maniacal fervour. Parry writes long letters to Joe, but Joe’s wife remarks the handwriting is similar to Joe’s. Parry waits, rain and shine outside Joe’s apartment, but always slinks away when there is a chance Joe’s wife might spot him. Joe complains to the police but, like his wife, they think he’s deluded – no one else has seen Parry.

In this light we view Joe’s dogged pursuit of the facts only as an accumulation of evidence of his own dangerous unravelling. As his paranoia deepens, the cracks begun to show in his marriage – he irrationally suspects his wife of an affair, they argue, fall apart. Finally, convinced of the possibly imaginary Parry’s malign intent, Joe acquires a gun.

But then it turns out Joe was right all along, the we, the reader, Joe’s wife and the police were all wrong, that Parry was outrageously – though not altogether convincingly – real and dangerous, taking Joe’s wife hostage and ushering in a tense thriller-like finale.

Hmmm,… weird!

You’ll find lots of revision notes and crib sheets online about Enduring Love. This suggests it’s been pored over quite a bit by critics and lit students over the years. They’ve turned it inside out torn it apart line by line for its essential meaning but I can’t find any that work with the premise Parry’s stalking was imaginary. The Enduring love of the title, the notes tell me, can be seen as the enduring love of Joe and his wife who eventually muddle through to a happy ending, also the love that Parry professes for Joe, but I’m confused by both of these since the former pretty much fell apart except for a rather unconvincing end-notes denouement, while the latter was clearly delusional.

What would have made more sense to me was for the enduring love to have been that of the love of God Parry professed to be bringing to Joe, that in spite of Joe’s hard headed rationalism, there was something of the spirit abiding all the while in him, in all of us waiting, enduring, attempting all the while to temper his egoic materialism, which his wife described at one point as the “new fundamentalism”. This was a novel about the conflict for the soul of mankind, the fight between materialism and spirit, however you want to define it, and then suddenly,… it wasn’t. Joe’s ego, his materialism, scientific materilaism won out to an altogether more bleakly trite conclusion.

Okay, I was wrong about much of what I read, but then there’s a lot about literature I never got, at least according to the Spark Notes and my grade D “O” Level in the subject (Ha! The fools). Still, should we always accept verbatim what others think? It depends who they are, I suppose. It can be useful as a guide when mulling over a piece of work, but I find the critiques are better read afterwards, in case they colour our expectations too much and render us blind to what our own minds are capable of taking away. I can only say there’s something deeply strange about Enduring Love, but that’s no bad thing.

A terrifically engaging book that really made me think! I got a lot out of reading it, even though it turns out most of that, like Parry’s fervour, was delusional in the end.

 

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onchesilbeachThe story opens in 1962 with a young couple, Florence and Edward, honeymooning in a hotel, near Chesil Beach, in Dorset. It’s their wedding night, and we first meet them at dinner, each privately contemplating the imminent consummation of their vows.

It’s clear they’re deeply in love, also clear there’s a conflict that bodes ill for their future. Edward is more sexually experienced and is almost swooning with desire at the prospect of completing himself with the woman he loves. However their courtship thus far has been rather chaste, but his love and his anticipation of their future lives together has made the waiting bearable, while at the same time stoking his expectations. Florence on the other hand is sexually repressed and secretly appalled by the idea of what’s to come, but through her love for Edward, she hopes she can manage sufficiently to at least get by.

The consummation is a disaster. Florence is left feeling disgusted, and Edward humiliated by her disgust. She rushes out of the hotel, runs along Chesil Beach, eventually huddling down in the fold of a smooth worn tree trunk that’s been washed up and here she considers her future. Meanwhile, Edward sets out to find her. This is the culmination of their story, the details of which are told in retrospect as we go along, finally to arrive at this critical moment when Edward catches up with her and they begin to talk.

Florence might easily be branded the guilty one here, but what crime is it, to be frigid? Yet it might also be said she deceived Edward over her distaste for intimacy throughout their courtship, that if she’d come clean with him he might reasonably have thought twice and married someone else. But at the opening of their foreplay we see she is not entirely disconnected from her carnal nature, that if Edward had only been more patient and, dare we say, a better lover, the night need not have ended so badly as it did.

His attempted rapprochement with Florence does not go well either, neither seeming able to say what they actually mean. The hurt gets in the way of their love, and the wrong words keep coming out. Finally, Florence, filled with self loathing and guilt, rejects her sexual nature, telling Edward they might still be together but he would have to find “that kind” of pleasure elsewhere, with other women, a suggestion Edward finds appalling. The marriage is over.

The story concludes with a brief flash forward to their futures, lives maturing along entirely separate lines. They do not see each other again after that fateful night, yet Florence still thinks of him, and he of her, both looking back over their lives from that moment in their youth, their love still invisibly binding them. The power of the story, for me at least, is the feeling that if only he had said this or she had said that, or both been more open, patient, understanding, their love would surely have led the way to a fulfilling life together. It was a prize worth the fighting for, but they allowed it to slip through their fingers.

The regret I felt on closing the book was palpable, and I am still thinking of it, wondering how I would have dealt with the situation, had I been in Edward’s place. How would I have viewed Florence’s frigidity and her eventual disgust? It’s seems churlish I would have rejected her out of disappointment at her lack of skill or even any vestige of apparent aptitude in that department. Surely, I would I have tried to find other ways of loving her, perhaps seeking to melt her over time into an appreciation of the desires she was clearly capable of, had I only been sensitive enough to realise it. Or maybe, like Edward, the humiliation I would have felt in that moment would have been too great a hurdle for my younger, Ego weighted self to overcome. But of course, neither of these characters actually existed and it’s a testament to McEwan’s prowess that he can so easily convince us that they did. I don’t know if that tree ever washed up on Chesil Beach, but I imagine it did, and I imagine Florence still sitting there, and I’m walking towards her, wondering what to say. And this time I’d better get it right.

Altogether, an emotionally powerful story of two very human characters, all the more poignant for not ending well, as is always the way I suppose.

But don’t let that put you off.

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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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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

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girl with green eyesThe meaning of things isn’t to be found in studying them, said Carina, nor in thinking about them at all, but more in attaining a state of non-judgemental awareness. Then we see there is no meaning in things themselves, that in seeking their meaning we obscure the formless beauty in them, and through analysis, through over-thinking, we fail to experience love.

“Then there is no meaning?” asked Finn.

“To what?”

“To life. My life. Your life.”

“Of course there is.”

“Then what?”

Carina looked a little dishevelled – her hair uncombed, more voluminous and more fiery red than Finn remembered from when she was working, from those long budget meetings whose only redeeming feature for Finn had been the presence of Carina herself, the knowledge of her kindness, and that she did not hate him.

Her blouse was creased and she wore no bra. Her cream suit looked business-like but too well worn and lived-in comfortable for a hundred quid a head restaurant. Finn had baulked at the idea of dinner in such a place as this, but she’d insisted, claiming her resurrection from the dead, at least in Finn’s eyes, was worth splashing out a little on dinner, and she would pay.

“Love,” she said.

“Love?”

“We find meaning, redemption, salvation, whatever you want to call it,… in love. Not just the kind you’re thinking. I mean not the one-person-bonking-the-other kind. Sometimes we think that’s all there is to love, that it’s merely the permission to bonk. But that’s Eros. I’m meaning more simply love – you know? Kindness, compassion. Agape.”

“Agape?”

“The love of God, Finn. The grace of God. I mean,… without being religious about it. Can you do it? Can you find a way of loving even these tossers in here? Look at them. Given the state of the economy and the number slaving below subsistence levels for tyrannical bastards, many of whom probably frequent pretentious pig troughs like this, there’s much in this well polished porcine crowd to hate. But in doing so, do you not also feel also,… a little cut off? A little less than human? A little diminished?”

“I,…”

Carina had not been drinking, had drunk nothing since the mother of all hangovers some weeks ago. This was Carina sober, incisive, cynical and – for all of her apparent languor – intellectually terrifying.

“I mean, how do we find the love of God in these people, Finn?”

Finn wasn’t sure he wanted to. He found their braying and their preening obnoxious, but felt he had to try, if only because Carina had challenged him to do it, and it was always a pleasure to please Carina.

“Em,… I can make a start, I suppose, by understanding their folly, and forgiving it? After all, I used to be one of them.”

Carina, smiled indulgently, nodded. “Yes, it’s a start. Every couple of generations we make the mistake of worshipping affluence, don’t we? But they’re just people like anybody else – frail, feeble, stupid. They make mistakes. By the way, you were never one of them, Finn,… or I would have seen no point in rescuing you. I’d’ve been doing humanity a service by allowing evolution to take it’s toll on you.”

“That doesn’t sound very,… loving?”

“Didn’t say I was perfect.”

“So, at the risk of fishing for compliments, which is always a dangerous thing where you’re concerned, what was my redeeming feature – the one that spared me from your indifference?”

“Oh,… it’s hard to say. A mixture of things. Compassion. Humility. And clear signs of distress.”

“Well, distress for sure.”

Finn scanned the dining crowds. He noted men did not wear ties to dinner any more, unlike Finn who remained always a decade behind fashion. He noted instead they wore hideously pretentious timepieces with designer names, timepieces that would no doubt be thrown away when their batteries ran down. There would be no future niche market on Ebay for such things, unless future generations rediscovered a sense of irony.

Carina watched him watching: “So, what are you thinking?”

But never mind what Finn’s thinking, Carina, what am I thinking? This is an interesting chapter and a turning point,  a little overlong perhaps, a little talky, you and Finn batting ideas across the table like tennis players, and I can barely keep up with you, just as the rules of tennis, so obvious to others have long remained a mystery to me. I can only ask you play the game wisely, Carina, and don’t hurt anyone – especially me. We’re in too deep by now. Your next moves can either make or break the story.

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