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

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

Hmm, story of my life.

Except:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe next time.

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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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