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Survivalcraft for wordpressWriting stories is old hat. They’re like a wind-up Swiss Watch; beautiful, intricate and hard to make, and no one wants them any more. Sure, you can still get them, but most mass market tickers are of the quartz variety. Technology has moved on. Like cut-throat razors, there’s no need for them any more and anyone still using them is seriously retro. In the same way, written stories died with the age of Television, about the time I was born, which makes it somewhat ironic I should have spent so much time writing them. I collect wind-up watches too. Speaks volumes.

Seems like I was born too late.

In the UK it died early. America hung on for a bit. Indeed, over there, it was still possible to sell fiction, even really poor fiction, well into the seventies. But now, like us, they don’t read stuff any more. It’s all visual drama, and most of it’s so up itself the only thing it teaches us is the art of celebrity.

In the UK you had a few women’s magazines and you had the People’s Friend. They’re still around but they weren’t an easy genre to figure out. I did try, but they get thousands of stories a week showered on them and they have to pick just one or two. Even if you’ve got what it takes it’s still a lottery. No room for also-rans. There were some London literary rags as well, I recall, still are,┬ábut you’ve only to read one to see they’re seriously off the strangeness scale, that only very clever people could fathom, so I never wasted stamps on them.

For Science Fiction and Speculative you had Interzone and The Third Alternative. They supported a lot of big names back in the day and were great magazines to read, with engaging and intelligent fiction, but I guess like the rest, it was just too competitive, again no room for second best with those boys. And if you don’t know your cyberpunk from your whatsamacallit, then seriously, don’t bother, you’ll just look like a fool.

I know I did.

I had some luck with Ireland’s Own, a Wexford based publication, quite old fashioned really, like something out of the fifties. I wrote traditional Irish tales for them, which was weird because I’ve never been to Ireland, and they say you should always write what you know, but they didn’t seem to mind that. They had about twenty stories off me, the sum total of my published opus, in fact, and all of them lost to obscurity now. I’ve published nothing there in ages because the market dried me up completely. And what I really wanted anyway was to publish longer stories – novels and such – the pursuit of which finally wised me up to the whole damned publishing business altogether.

I’m reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut at the moment – most recently a book called Timequake, published in ’97, part weird, zany fiction, also part autobiography, in which he was already lamenting the end of the era of pop fiction, the one he grew up in, the one that enabled him to quit his job at General Electric to write full time and make a decent living at it, just like I wanted to do. But Vonnegut was a generation ahead of me and had already concluded it was over at the same time as I was still trying to doggedly break in. He was a real writer’s writer, Kurt Vonnegut, God rest him.

When I say writing stories is old hat, I don’t mean they’re no longer relevant or enjoyable, it’s just that fewer people bother with them, that’s all. Stories used to pass the time at a time when we all seemed to have more time, when the evenings after work seemed longer and there was time to just – I don’t know – just be. Nowadays by the time we’ve finished commuting and had our tea, it’s time for bed and work again. So it’s all too easy to pick up your phone in the bits of time that are left and play Candy Crush than it is to immerse yourself in a work of fiction.

Me? Guilty as charged your honour. I can lose myself for hours in Survivalcraft instead of reading or writing. See pic – that’s me! But it doesn’t exactly teach you anything of any use outside the game. I’ve built an entire world in it. There are farms and mines and homesteads, and remote islands, all interlinked by tunnels, so I can get about without running the gauntlet of hungry wild animals. Years and years its taken me, just tunnelling away, piling up the earth to build more farmsteads, plant more crops, round-up cows. I’ve only to drop my phone and it’s all gone. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just an escape, like doing Soduku.

Stories are an escape too, yes, but they are so much more than that. In the main they present an experience as if it were shared. The writer beckons you in, and says come along with me for a bit. And along you go, finding yourself on a journey peopled by characters as real as any you’re likely to meet in real life. And they talk to you, show you things. They ask you: what do you think of this? You always come away from a story, a good story, with your soul changed in some way – a little deeper, a little wiser.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

For a time, some time post 2008, when our devices became portable and powerful, they seemed the perfect medium for written stories to migrate to, and that’s pretty much where I’ve been as an amateur hack since then, basically giving stuff away, and why not? given that most publications don’t even pay for it now anyway, what’s there to lose? But I’m not so sure about this any more. All I seem to be doing is creating reams of content for others to pepper with their advertising, or to content scrape, or simply bare-faced pirate, all of them like parasites picking at my brains. And then we’ve had the scandals of election meddling through nefarious psychological means, served out of our devices and pretty soon you come to realise our devices are not so much full of wonder any more, as full of shit. Apologies for the “S” word – Vonnegut is a bad influence, but you’ve got to love him.

So is it time we set our devices aside? Sure, if you go searching online you might find some decent stories, like flowers growing on a dung hill, but you’re not going to manage it without getting a lot of crap on your wellies. We’d all be better going for a walk, a real walk, in the sunshine because it cheers you up, you know? Or go for a coffee and spot how many people still have their heads stuck in their phones and up their asses. Best of all buy a paper book from a charity shop, then sit down somewhere comfy and read, like we did in the old days.

I’m coming up on retirement soon, thinking to duck out early while I’ve still got breath in me for climbing a few more hills. I’ll have all the time in the world to read and to write then, but I’ll probably just sitting flicking listlessly on my phone like everybody else, or ordering tat off Ebay, or playing Survivalcraft. Then I’ll finally have become one more zombie, good as gold, incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts, or words, together.

I hope that isn’t true, but fiction is definitely niche these days, reading it and, I suppose, writing it too. Like Dandelion and Burdock pop, it conjures up memories of long ago. But, like those childhood summers, golden age of the written word isn’t coming back and, like climate-change and Neo-con economics, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. But that’s fine, because it’s still possible to find pleasure in really small things. And it’s just as well, because small things is all we’ve ever really had, or needed in the first place.

So,.. sun’s coming up. Let’s saddle up.

And ride!

Survivalcraft for wordpress 2

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s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

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It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

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rhinogI return from Wales feeling a bit flat. This is normal. Wales was beautiful and silent and very, very grand, but then I come home to find the garden around my ears, at least the bits of it not killed by drought, and there’s a pile of mail already nagging at me like flies, and the shower’s bust at the first twist of the dial so you can’t turn it off and the water’s gushing down the plughole and a drought order hanging over us.

So I’m wishing myself already paddling again like a little boy on Harlech beach, shoes and socks in hand, and for a short time not a care in the world, or walking a quiet stretch of rural lane of an evening, watching the sun set over the Llyn, and then a glass of Malt on the terrace of my little cottage as the moon rises over the Barmouth hills.

I fixed the shower with a blob of glue, which should hold until the next time someone uses it, and then I spent the day researching shower units to replace the broken one without needing to redecorate the entire bathroom and I ordered one off Amazon, thus neatly pushing the problem out in time to the mercy of the oppressed delivery man. And then I sat, and I tried to pick up a few threads of writing, but they were elusive, or maybe it was because the phone was in my hand and I’m glued to it already, like an addict, to the fall of the western world.

I learn that in my absence, it has been decided we are to stockpile food and medicines in warehouses that have not existed since 1945, and we’re to borrow generators from the army to keep the lights on in Northern Ireland. This sounds like fiction, the plot of a Ballardian dystopia, perhaps? It cannot actually be true, can it? It’s merely a ruse of those cheeky tabloids, something to show Johnny Foreigner we mean business, and we’ll damned well live off Spam post BREXIT, if it means we can still wag our Agincourt fingers. Or maybe these are the first Machiavellian priming strokes of a second BREXIT referendum, because who in their right mind is going to vote for Spam when we were promised milk and honey?

Then I’m sucked sideways into an article on the whys and wherefores of writing, and how it’s good for the soul and all that, and how money’s not the important thing, and just as well, and who can argue, except in the last paragraph I discover the writer’s just flogging his book on how to write, which is rather bad form, but not entirely unexpected because that’s the kind of world we live in – everyone a chancer and a spiv now.

Then another serendipitous swerve has me bumping into Vonnegut, a writer I don’t know that well, but he seems like a good egg, and he’s telling me yeah, you know it’s true, Mike, art’s not about making a living, it’s about making the living bearable,… which is something to ponder I suppose while we’re tucking into that Spam and wondering where our next tank of petrol’s coming from. At least we will have our art, except we don’t encourage it in schools any more, so we won’t even have that.

And I’m wondering about rushing out to Tescos to stockpile my own “no deal” BREXIT larder – hint, tins and dried stuff – and again feeling this terrible post holiday blues, and Vonnegut’s talking about just writing stuff because all there is is life and death and inbetween there’s this brief opportunity to grow some soul, and that’s where the writing comes in. For you. Your self. To grow some soul. You see, Mike? And I’m nodding my agreement because I’ve been living that story for a while now, but sometimes,… sometimes you forget, don’t you?

Except,…

I can’t forget that view inland from the Barmouth viaduct – that great sandy funnel of the Mawddach Estuary at tide’s ebb, or again in the evening with the flood roaring around the pilings and covering up the sand with quicksilver again, and the green mountains beyond, the mist and the light playing upon them in endless symphonies of mood.

And there’s been this poem trying to take shape in my head, something about those mountains not remembering, or the trees, or the hoary stones, or the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane. Not remembering what? I don’t know, but that’s what the poem’s trying to get at you see?

And it goes:

The hills will not remember,
Nor these scattered, hoary stones,
Nor the foxgloves
Nodding in the sleepy lanes,
Nor the oaks whose leaves,
Turning now their backs,
Anticipate the rains,…

There’s more, but I can’t feel the shape of it yet. It’s being driven most powerfully by the memory of a nearly full pre blooded Welsh moon rising, white as death over green hills and into a queer, luminous turquoise, and the air is warm and the night is still, and quiet. Then there’s the scent of that Islay malt I’m sipping, and it’s reminding me of another country, that’s also my own, a place I’ve not seen in thirty five years, but whose impressions remain strong, a place that doesn’t remember me either. And then there’s that other place, land of my grandfather I’ve yet to visit, and that’s been bothering me awfully of late. But in the main I’m thinking it’s a human thing, this curse of remembering, and those hoary stones and that Welsh moon are all the better for being without it.

Yes,… confusing I know – I’m English and Welsh and Scots and Irish, and I’m a European too, and proud of it. Identity is whatever you want it to be, and it’s best to let it stretch as wide as possible than to narrow it down so much it throttles the life out of us. Dammit what’s happening? Can we not fight back?

So, the poem? Okay, I think I know what it’s getting at now. It’s going to tell me that I am the mountains and the trees and the hoary stones, and all that, and even the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane, and that what I feel most keenly at times like these is my separation and a loneliness at the oneness now broken, yet reflected still in the things that are largely untouched, like the hills and the hoary stones, and the trees and the silver moon rising and that view up the Mawddach Estuary. It’s that final realisation on the path to healing the rift with this aching sense of “the other”, that in the final analysis there is “no other”. But that’s a tough sell when you’re drunk on secularism, or scientism, or religion 101, or that petty, petty nationalism, and all that’s holding the whole damned shower together these days is a blob of fucking glue.

(Sorry for the F Word)

Graeme out.

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