Wednesday, December 26, 2012

NANOWRIMO – A GREAT IDEA BUT IT WASN'T MINE

I want to put the record straight and I can't find a way to do it. Here's the problem.

Last year I published "From Quill to Keyboard", a slight book of eight essays about writing. The essays had been published separately elsewhere but I re-formatted them as an e-book, and gave them a whole new public. In fact, gave them to a whole new public, as a free book, on Smashwords. They have been flying off the shelf – if a virtual book can fly off a virtual shelf in a modest way.

To change focus for a moment – the reason will become clear – I sometimes Google myself. It's shameful but I can't help it. I type "Joan Curry" + writer into the panel and see where I am in the grand scheme of things. Pages 1, 2 and 3 are satisfactorily ego-boosting and it's usually enough to calm a troubled mind. Occasionally I go further, to pages 4 and 5, even 6. And that's when I found the problem.

There was my name in connection with two sites: www.squidoo.com/  and www.pearltrees.com/  In the first, under free ebooks about writing, I found "From Quill to Keyboard" with the gratifying comment that it was a "motivating read for every writer". Then I read that I was "one of the founders of NaNoWriMo". This was repeated on the Pearltrees site.

I should explain that NaNoWriMo was started by an American called Chris Baty who decided to write a novel in one calendar month. The aim was 50,000 words of hell-for-leather exuberant imperfection, never mind editing or planning. He and twenty friends spent July 1999 writing and six of them actually finished their novels. The next year they changed the month to November, and NaNoWriMo was born – national novel writing month. There are now thousands of people from all over the world participating in NaNoWriMo every year.

It is true that in "From Quill to Keyboard" I mention NaNoWriMo to illustrate the working method of an old friend whose exuberance was legendary and whose editing and planning non-existent. Her output, however, was prodigious. But I'm afraid that I was not only not one of the founders of NaNoWriMo, but I have never even participated in the event.

I have tried to correct the mistake, presumably made by the reviewer of the book, on both Squidoo and Pearltrees but without success. Pearltrees proved impossible to navigate to the mistake once logged on – and you can't comment until you've logged on. On Squidoo there seems no way to comment at all. So, for the record, I was not responsible for NaNoWriMo – but I would have been proud to have been, had I been.

Monday, December 24, 2012

THE TURKEY AND OTHER STUFF-UPS


Once upon a time we had a Christmas that was not so much about stuffing the turkey, although that came into it, but a whole lot about stuff-ups.

There was the hammer cock-up and the VCR calamity, the turkey tragedy and the stuffing stuff-up, the duvet disaster and the brandy butter catastrophe, not to mention the Silk Road misfortune.

To begin:  On the morning of Christmas Eve we packed the defrosting turkey, the stuffing (in a separate bag, we didn't want the bugs to start yippy-ay-yaying) and the brandy butter into the chilly-bin, heaped enough clothes for ten days (we were only staying for three) and all the presents into the car and drove over the Southern Alps to the West Coast.

On our arrival one child stared at the naked turkey, said eeeuw! but gamely started to push stuffing into various cavities. Eventually trussed, the turkey went into the oven, but two hours later we realised that we couldn't detect delicious roasting smells. We checked, to find the bird still ghostly white under its foil blanket – something wrong with the thermostat? We turned the oven to fan-bake, removed the foil and blasted the turkey for another hour.

Christmas day we discovered that the only part of the turkey that was actually cooked was the breast. Even the stuffing was raw. We didn't starve, the table was loaded – and there was Christmas pudding and brandy butter. But my famous, sinful brandy butter was oily and sort of yellowish – what had I done to it?  We plastered it over our pudding anyway.

Thank goodness, present time. Surely nothing could ... but we weren't done yet.  In spite of careful planning and consultations we had missed something. The budding builder had been given a complete new toolkit and our hammer was somewhat redundant, but hey, you can never have too many hammers. There were two copies of the book about the Silk Road under the tree – for the same person. The child about to go flatting was handed a huge parcel containing a duvet inner – and found that in the process of sealing the plastic pack the contents had become hopelessly welded along one edge.

A trip to town later solved the duvet and the Silk Road problems. The hammer simply joined the other hammers in the fancy new tool box. The turkey was cut up and blitzed piece by piece in the microwave until it was safe to eat, if somewhat dehydrated. The brandy butter was edible but only just. And I can't for the life of me remember what the VCR cock-up was about at all. Some things are probably better un-remembered.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE END OF THE WORLD

Well, one day to go. The end of the world is nigh, apparently, and it is nigher for us down here in New Zealand than it is for the rest of you. We reach December 21 way ahead of anyone else so perhaps we're the canary in the mine. If we are obliterated, you lot are not far behind.

Tsunami
I'm assuming, of course, that the so-called prediction of Earth's demise is accurate as to dates. I mean, 21st December 2012 is quite precise. The trouble is, 21st December here in New Zealand is only 20th December most of elsewhere. Not only that, it is a matter of what time on the 21st December this event is supposed to take place. Midnight? Eight o'clock in the morning? If the world blows up one second after midnight, New Zealand time, then those of you up there in say New York could feel aggrieved that you still had seventeen hours of 20th December to live it up that you were now deprived of. If you could still feel, of course, seeing that the world had, as it were, disappeared. You could sue the Mayans for false advertising – oh no, you couldn't of course – drat.

And think of poor little Niue Island, just up there north-west of New Zealand. Niue is twenty three hours behind New Zealand – will the Niueans have to wait their turn, watching the rest of the world disintegrating until one second after midnight, Niue time? No of course not – a disintegrating world surely couldn't fragment itself piece by piece because of the trifling matter of time zones.

As for those deluded individuals who have made plans to protect themselves from the coming devastation – good luck. However I fail to see how gas masks and underground bunkers are going to help. What happens when the bangs and shakes and fires have died down? Do people really think they will emerge blinking from their bunkers – hello? Bunkers are built underground and the ground will not be there, and nor will the people. There will just be space and the debris of Earth in the form of trillions of tiny asteroids whizzing about.

The Mayans must have got it wrong. Or rather, we have got them wrong. They didn't actually predict the end of the Earth anyway, they simply stopped constructing their calendar at 21st December 2012. They probably got tired of writing "18th December, 19th December, 20th December, 21st December ..." and said enough is enough. After all, they had to stop somewhere.

But – just in case – bye bye, love to all ...


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

DIAL M FOR MURDOCH


I'm currently working on a book written by journalist Martin Hickman and a British member of parliament, Tom Watson.  "Dial M for Murdoch" tells the almost unbelievable story of the rise and fall of the News International empire and its eventually corrupt, dirty, cynical drive for power and profits.

 Coincidentally a relatively small scandal has recently broken in Australia. A pair of "presenters" at an insignificant radio station decided to telephone the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being cared for. They also decided to pretend to be the Queen and Prince Charles, and see how far they got before being caught out. They recorded the call. Their deception was juvenile and ridiculous, their accents absurd, but somehow they got through the barriers and were apparently given information they shouldn't have.

The consequences were appalling. A nurse died of shame. Her husband and children are devastated. The hospital is embarrassed. The guilty pair have apologised and have appeared on television in tears, insisting that they didn't mean any harm. Of course they didn't. It was a prank. They did nothing illegal. They didn't foresee any consequences. The radio station management had checked the recording and okayed it for broadcasting. So it wasn't their fault.

The point of the whole silly business was about ratings and therefore profit. It's done all the time. Anything to make a splash, catch the reader's or listener's attention, collect followers, sell stuff, make money. And most of the time it's legitimate, even if it's sometimes also distasteful and vulgar.

Well, that's pretty much how News International went about things too.  Has no one noticed a connection between something like that harmless prank to boost ratings and what Rupert Murdoch's corrupt and toxic empire eventually stood for?  Information gathering about people in the news – juicy little titbits about royals and film stars – to increase circulation and make money escalated from scratching around legitimate sources to spying, hounding, hacking phones, bullying, bribing, blackmailing, intimidating, perverting the course of justice and the rest of the huge, wriggling, maggoty mess.

The slippery slope can start with nothing very much but lead to ruin for a lot of people, just like the Murdoch empire. It's well sign-posted, and could well start with "I didn't mean any harm".


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

EUTERPE - THE MOST MEMORABLE DAY


In the sailing ship Euterpe, on the voyage of 1879, there was one day that the three diarists on board – George Lister, Joshua Charlesworth and James Martin – agreed was most memorable. It was 12th October, about halfway through the voyage that began on 1st August and lasted five months.


Euterpe's flag
(Courtesy Mike Wood Photography)
It began when the sun rose with a stunning display of beautiful colours. Lister observed that it rose and set differently in the tropics than it did on shore. The sea was like a great tableland, they could scarcely detect the motion of the ship and "the water was so clear that we could see a great way down – some said a quarter of a mile." 

Charlesworth too found the day spectacularly beautiful, as fine a day as he had ever witnessed. There was not a breath of wind, the sea was perfectly calm, not a ripple on the water, and they could see the horizon for twenty miles. The laconic Martin wrote that he had never seen a pond as smooth.  

A whale was spotted half a mile off, and came to within a few feet of the ship. It blew twice, then raised its head and back out of the water and disappeared. Porpoises and flocks of large birds, including albatross, floated on the water. Sharks, bonitos and shoals of small fish were about, and soon a shark came swimming around the ship accompanied by its pilots, two to eighteen inches long and coloured like mackerel.  Some went "right before his nose" and others followed behind. Baits were let down to entice the shark to take a bite but he was shy, although he kept going round the vessel so that all could see him. 

More sharks arrived, people tossed them biscuits, and a sailor threw a harpoon at one but missed. Bait was more successful and two sharks were caught but broke away before they could be dragged on board. Finally one was caught, hauled up and slaughtered on the deck. Charlesworth wrote, "You may depend the affair caused great excitement on board" (only if you enjoy that sort of thing, say I).

Whales continued to spout about the ship in the evening and Charlesworth described such a "splendid sunset … as I have seen yet and perhaps ever I shall see again" and “altogether the day passed away the most beautiful we have had on the voyage.”

Martin felt contemplative: "We are in a dead calm and the sunset is splendid. Oh this uncertainty there is about a sailing ship. We may be stuck here for a month or gone in an hour." 

There was singing on deck at the end of that beautiful, exciting, memorable day.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

OUT OF THE WAY, JUMBO


It has been said that paintings in exhibitions hear more ridiculous opinions than anything else. Including "Call that art?  Bottom of a parrot cage, more like!" Mind you, if elephants and monkeys can be roped in to produce daubs that sell for thousands, parrots can't be far behind.  

Years ago, when I first started painting, a neighbour who was a keen gardener gave me a sheaf of arum lilies, complete with bulbs.  I planted the bulbs and painted a picture of the flowers, using a bold, free, extravagant treatment and lashings of paint. When shown the result, the woman gazed for a long moment. "Those lilies were certainly past their best, weren't they?" she said. "Never mind, I'll find you some better ones."

That didn't stop me, although it took time to understand that in all the arts the first person you should please is yourself. It takes a thick skin to paint what you want and damn the consequences. It is very liberating, splashing about in a kindergarten, who-cares way and it is a relief from our everyday, practical selves. While we are painting we are not mowing the lawn or hanging out the laundry, and people are not pestering us for lunch, cups of coffee or demands that we hold the ladder while they get on with some important job like clearing out the gutters.

One of the difficulties faced by those who paint for fun but aspire to higher things is graduating from the chocolate box school of art. We don’t want to churn out pretty landscapes to please other people, we want to make Art with a capital A. However, we crave appreciation. Say something, dammit. We would prefer honest praise, but lie if you must, gracefully and convincingly. Warning: paintings are often like kittens, free to a good home, so too much enthusiasm and you could find yourself lugging one home and having to decide whether to hang it on the living room wall or behind the garage door.

These days the house is full of paintings, several others have been sold, and now that the weather is warming up I am looking forward to moving the easel out to the garage where I can work without bothering about making a mess. All those elephants, monkeys and parrots had better move aside, I'm on my way.

Friday, November 23, 2012

THE PATH OF AN ARROW

Woody Allen said that he didn't want to achieve immortality through his work, he wanted to achieve it through not dying. Given that the second option is beyond current scientific possibility, we're left with our work, and perhaps our descendants, to carry on after we're gone.

Virginia Woolf, who had no children, used to make notes about her own sayings, especially if they were a little out of the ordinary. It was, said Harold Laski, like watching someone organise her own immortality. Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who lies dying, murmurs "I have immortal longings in me". Don't we all? All that hand-wringing, all those regrets about not fulfilling one's destiny, all those opportunities missed. Then there was Kilroy.

In England during the second world war Kilroy was everywhere. In cartoon form, the drawings appeared on walls with the scrawl: "Kilroy was here". No one knew for sure how he came into being although there were plenty of theories. No one really knew what it meant – anything or nothing – but millions of people even today remember Kilroy. Not exactly immortality but fairly long-lived for a cartoon character who said and did nothing except declare that he was here.

That's not the case for most of us. The 18th century essayist Joseph Addison used to wander through Westminster Abbey and think about the tombstones and inscriptions, many of which recorded only that the departed persons had been born and then died. He reflected that, as was "finely described in holy writ", many lives were like the path of an arrow – gone in a flash and its path immediately closed up and lost. That's us.

Those who have done great or spectacular things can safely leave it to others to record the milestones, the successes and failures, the trials and dramas of their lives. But the need to be remembered is present in ordinary people too. I think that is why some of us, not just writers, have the urge to record our lives so that others might know that there has been more to us than birth then death. Whether we do it for ourselves, the family or the world, we want to leave a record, to explain ourselves, and show that we have left some mark as we have blundered onwards, not like an arrow but more like a machete. Or a bulldozer. To say, like Kilroy, I was here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

MASTERS AND COMMANDERS


In my family there are sailors and ship-wrecks, pirates and bandits, some splendid characters, and always, everywhere, the sea. So many threads, so many stories – who could imagine that family history is dull?

I think about the fisherman who was born in 1658 into a family teeming with masters and commanders – was he overwhelmed? There was the tragedy of Baker Phillips, a Royal Navy lieutenant who was unfairly court martialled for negligence during the War of the Austrian Succession when a French gun-ship attacked unexpectedly at short range. He was only twenty seven when he was ceremoniously shot on the forecastle of the Princess Royal at Spithead in 1745.

Dr Maitland King

 Great great grandfather Samuel Gibson, master mariner, was part of New Zealand history when he brought the Egmont carrying Bishop Harper to Christchurch in 1856.  Nine years later he sailed from Sydney in the Margaret Mitchell and lost the ship and his life, it was assumed to pirates, in the South China seas.

My grandmother sailed from England to Japan to marry her cousin, another master mariner, in 1895 and remained there until the beginning of the second world war. Widowed only twenty years after the wedding and raising four children without much money, she never learned the language, although all her children and grandchildren were bi-lingual.

Her up-for-anything daughter drove a Studebaker hell-for-leather through the Malayan jungle with bullets whining all around her, visited the burning ghats of India, and dressed in men's clothes to explore the red light district of Hong Kong. During world war II she ran almost single-handedly the lifeboat rescue service, and one night fended off a drunken soldier when her flat was bombed open by telling him that she was too busy entertaining his commanding officer.

Great grandfather Robert Aurelius King commanded an opium ship and might have been an old wretch with a sense of humour. He once wrote "retired opium smuggler" on a census form and seemed, in retirement, to have dabbled in various ventures including the Imperial Salt Company, the National Provincial Bank of England, and a strange matter regarding the patent for improvements to circular saws. He was in court more than once.

So was his wife, Dr Maitland King. She met and married Captain King in Shanghai in 1856 and had eight children. She called herself a doctor and ran a clinic near Grosvenor Square for "upper and wealthy classes", offering electro-medicated baths and treatments for corpulence. She bustled her way into royal circles, told whopping lies about her age and background, and was described as "the most interesting woman in London". One of her grandchildren remembered her in old age fishing from a dinghy on the Thames, smoking cigars and swigging rum.

Friday, November 9, 2012

VACANT, UNEMPLOYED AND UNDETERMINED


Take it from me – one forget-me-not plant has 482 flowers on it. Each plant also has 2759 small, furry pods. The pods stick to t-shirt, trousers, hair, shoes and the cat. When they break open, oh so easily, each pod has 1057 tiny, glittering black seeds. Every one of those seeds is determined to put itself about, which is why I have a million forget-me-not plants in the garden, now podding and seeding all over the place.

Forget-me-nots

As Dr Samuel Johnson observed to James Boswell, who had passed his law exams and offered his thesis to the great man for comment, "activity pursued vigorously and constantly" helps one to "gain ... security from those troublesome and wearisome discontents, which are always obtruding themselves upon a mind vacant, unemployed and undetermined".

That's me, vigorously and constantly pursuing activity to banish the wearisome discontents. Which is partly because I have no work to do. The courier can't get to me with a book I'm expecting to work on – there are roadworks and the courier would have to park in the adjoining street and walk perhaps fifty metres, and couriers have no time for that. There is also screeching and clanging two properties away where a giant yellow grabber is clawing at a house that must have been too damaged by the earthquakes to save. I can see the articulated neck of the monster swooping over the remains. I won't want to watch my house suffer the same fate when the time comes.

Having no work makes me pace the floor and bother people on the phone. So I've been outside attending to the forget-me-nots, yanking out the dead and dying, and covering myself with seed pods. Then I sat on the sofa on the deck and plucked the pods off my clothes and my person, one by clinging one – they are not called forget-me-nots for nothing. Memo to self: listen dummy, if you throw the seeds over the deck railing and back into the garden they will grow. The birds, mice and other scurrying creatures will carry them around and drop them everywhere.

Oh well, they fill up masses of space and they are gorgeous when in full flower. I'm always happy to see them, and they give me employment in times like these when I'm vacant and undetermined.

 



Saturday, November 3, 2012

LITERARY CONSTIPATION



There are writers who approach what they do with furrowed brow and gritted teeth. They are afraid to start, and make excuses not to. I met many of them in my creative writing classes, and their stories were pretty much always the same.

Painting: Cottage Garden Mix

They developed bad old ways long ago, when they were children, perhaps in primary school, perhaps in secondary. Some teacher, determined that this child will learn how to read and write no matter how long it took, squeezed the joy out of the process of story-telling or essay-writing. That child could build up a mighty, lifelong dread, not just about reading and writing but sometimes about education as a whole. Repeat after me, the teacher said: I am going to write a story. I must work out what I want to say before I pick up the pencil. I must not make a mistake. I must sit here until I have written three sentences perfectly.

When those children became adults and turned up in a creative writing class, they said they wanted to write. When asked why don't they then, they said they didn't know how to start. So, what was the problem? How about putting one word down, then another, and another? But no – that wasn't allowed at school. They were told what to write about. They had to decide what they wanted to say first.

Well, that's not usually the way it works. I suspect that perfection – or rather the striving for perfection – can drain the life out of what we do as writers. It causes literary constipation. That's the problem.

Perfection is all very well, but it begins with mistakes and mis-steps. Perfection is what you aim for, not what you start with, and it comes, not with luck but with perseverance and many attempts, at the end of the process, not at the beginning. You can't make something perfect if you haven't anything to make perfect. It is too much to ask of anyone, but especially a child, to get it perfect before they even begin.

You start with something hesitant and messy and scrambled and awkward and dull and misjudged, and you make it as perfect as possible. Or as perfect as the finished piece warrants. The degree of perfect-ness (you can't have degrees in perfection) is up to us, and also depends on the purpose of the final version. An email requires very little and you're allowed to be sloppy. An essay for a university paper requires a lot.

And The Great New Zealand Novel? Heaps. As long as it doesn't lose the vigour and spark of life.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

STOP OR I'LL SHOOT

There are enough barriers around this city at the moment without worrying about those we construct for ourselves.  We writers do it all the time – we see monumental boulders in the road, impenetrable thickets of tangled undergrowth ahead, deep trenches at our feet. We bang our foreheads, we can't go on, there's no way forward, everything is a hopeless rubble. And yes (sigh) we make mountains out of molehills as well.

Painting: Garden Wall (detail)

I still encounter those, when I'm stuck and can't see my way through the thicket of trash.  And it's absurd, because if you don't make mistakes, you don't make anything.  Everyone makes mistakes. That's how we learn.  I know now, with experience, that if I stick at it, I can do it. Doesn't make it easy, but I know I can do it, with fingers crossed, bullocking my way through the obstacles, preferably as fast as possible and remembering to disengage the critical faculties first.

A barrier is useful – in its place.  However it should never be set at the beginning of a project, to discourage and warn and wag its finger. A barrier there makes me stumble, doubt my sense of direction, question my reasoning, and obscures my destination. I need to be free to bash onwards without worrying about those little problems. They come later.

The barrier should be placed at the end, when the job is done - to stop a piece being released to public view before every last comma has been scrutinised. The barrier is a Berlin wall that says stop or I'll shoot, and the only way through is Checkpoint Charlie manned by beady-eyed scrutineers who see all the idiocies and blunders and jerks and wanderings that have been missed. It's easy enough to fix those when there is actually something to fix.

This side of the barrier anything goes. On the other side of the barrier all is perfection.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

THE MOONLIT DOOR


" 'Is there anybody there?' said the traveller, knocking on the moonlit door." Walter de la Mare's plaintive line has lingered in my mind for umpteen years, since perhaps third form (year 9 in today's money).

The traveller is in need of a warm welcome, but he knocks in vain. No one looks out of a window. No one turns the key to open the door. Frustrated, the traveller shouts into the silent night, "Tell them I came, and no one answered" and rides away through the darkness.
Painting: Reflections

Sometimes that's how it feels when bloggers blog doggedly on (how about that for alliteration) and no one answers or remarks or even complains. It's a shame that people rarely comment on posts now – but it's not surprising. I've tried leaving comments on other people's blogs in a spirit of fellow-feeling but give up in frustration. Since the spammers latched onto the possibilities of spraying their misspelt, garbled messages wherever they can find space, bloggers have had to guard the ramparts. Now if someone leaves a message (thank you, it's deeply appreciated) it doesn't get published unless I say so. And that's only if the someone makes a heroic effort to negotiate the first lines of defence, like the diabolical word recognition test which, by the way, I can't always read but the spammers obviously can.

This spurt of dummy-spitting has arisen because I've spent the last few days helping to keep another website clear of a sudden surge of spammy messages. It involved visiting the site a couple of times a day and deleting the offending posts, a bit like hovering over a mouse/rat hole with a mallet at the ready. Occasionally I saw a suspicious character on-line, twirled my moustache saying ha-ha! and sure enough, another piece of garbage appeared. Whack! My best time was two and a half minutes between post and delete.

What do the bleepwits get out of it?  The messages are unreadable. They contaminate the sites.  They deter legitimate users. No one with half a brain cell would follow the links. Bloggers sigh. The moonlit door remains shut.

"Tell them I came, and no one answered" indeed. It's getting lonely out here.

  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

WE OF THE FUKAWI TRIBE

Location, sense of, missing: a condition affecting those who are normal in most respects but are lacking the personal GPS that tells them where they are and where they are supposed to be going. People simply don't understand how other people can set off to go somewhere and get lost.  That is, get lost between one street and the next, even round the corner from home. Or become disorientated after a visit to a department store just by walking out of a different door from the one they came in by.

Painting: Lost

We – yes, I am one – are honorary members of the Fukawi tribe of darkest Africa, discovered by some explorers who were camped in a clearing. They were startled when a group of natives staggered into the clearing and cried: "We're the Fukawi!"  For the friends and family of the afflicted one it can be either very funny or profoundly irritating, and nearly always baffling. They roll their eyes when they read a text that says "Am by brdge, trffic lghts, chch on corner – where am I?"  They give directions in baby-steps and never use the words north, south, east and west which are meaningless to us.

We of the Fukawi never venture out without a phone and a map. If driving we check out the route carefully first. But a lifetime of more or less successfully working around this endearing little disability has been no match for the forces of nature.  More than 12,400 earthquakes in Christchurch, and the heroic measures to repair the damage, have reconfigured the landscape to such an extent that even those with a properly functioning sense of location are sometimes challenged.

For the Fukawi it can be a nightmare, because they keep moving the roads around and a "DETOUR" sign causes instant confusion.  Intersections have been realigned and many of the buildings have disappeared. We can find ourselves in streets we've never heard of, and only by luck and the beneficence of the Supreme and Gracious God of Fukawi can we find our way home again.

That's us - we're the Fukawi and we say so – often.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

THE THIEF OF TIME

Everybody does it. Writers, however, are champions at it. If it were an Olympic event we would win gold every time. It is procrastination, the thief of time.
Painting: Moody Blues

We put off what we know we should be doing, what we want to be doing – writing.  Sometimes we put it off  until the next day, or the next. It might be our livelihood, or a hobby, or still just a dream, but for some reason writers are so reluctant to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair that there have been volumes written about the problem. It's called writer's block but that, I'm afraid, is a cop-out. It's putting a name to the condition, thereby giving it credibility. It's like having the doctor diagnosing 'flu, which makes it OK to stay in bed and suffer nobly.  We say "I can't write, I have writer's block".

For writers, not-writing isn't laziness. If it were laziness we would just sit about reading or contemplating, blobbing out, but we don't. We spend time looking urgently for something else do, like mowing the lawn, hacking at the shrubbery, cleaning the car. If we can justify the non-writing, all the better – if there are more important things to do, it's OK.  This is a little how it goes:

Get up in morning. Shower. Brush teeth. Get dressed. Make bed. Make coffee. Eat banana. Feed cats. Sip coffee while staring out of window. Turn on computer. Check emails. Check favourite websites. Sneak into Facebook – why oh why? feel guilty. Play Spider Solitaire – twice. Feel ashamed and guilty. Um, let's see, what next. Um, need groceries, make list. Not much on list, leave till another day. Um, carpet needs vacuuming, dead flies on windowsills – flick round with duster. Laundry! Yes, good day for drying, find stuff to launder. Hang out wet clothes, see weeds, yank out handfuls, hands now filthy, can't type like that, might as well wash windows, wash hands at same time ...

The late Michael King was being interviewed on radio a few years ago and a man rang for his advice on how to overcome the difficulties of getting started. It was so hard, he said. How do you get motivated, he asked. King had little patience with this wimpish attitude. He said bluntly, if you don't want to write, do something else.

No use kidding ourselves – writing can only be done by doing it. We just have to get on with it.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

THE ABSTRACT SHRIMP

A painting can come together in a whole lot of different ways. It can begin with an idea or an image, a colour or a design, an arrangement of elements or a feeling. It can even begin with a mistake.

This painting was begun on the evening before my first, and so far only, exhibition of March 2010. It was a whim: there was a tempting blank canvas, there were paints and brushes, and there was panic. Did I have enough pictures to hang? Were any of them any good?  What was "good" anyway? Would anyone come to see them?  What was I thinking of, to hold an exhibition at all?

Panic can cause either a total freeze or a frenzy. I squeezed out a blurt of blue direct from the tube onto the canvas and then splashed some water at it. The water caused a swirl to develop which I encouraged by tipping the canvas about.  A splodge of white paint helped to create a foamy look, a squiggle or two of black gave depth and focus and, I thought, watery interest. Wateriness.

Then I made a mistake. On the so far blank right side I applied a broad stroke with a brush loaded with red paint. I was immediately appalled.  What had I done?  Gone was the loose, watery look and there was a huge thick patch of red.  Rude words filled the air –  &%^*#@ and &%$+*.

Well, goodness me, I'd been selling the bromide for ever that mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process. If you never make mistakes, you'll never make anything. Mistakes must be used, dealt with, worked around, incorporated or in some way overcome. I decided to throw water at this one too and as chance would have it, I tipped the canvas down to the right and allowed several dribbles to form. A bit more splashing around and swirling and brushing and the canvas was more or less covered. I left it to dry overnight.

In the morning, in the bustle of packing up nearly forty paintings, I called the still damp canvas "Abstract".  A friend saw it and said "Shrimp!" Another threatened to bring her own offering to the exhibition – a placard warning of "WET PAINT!" A Japanese tourist saw the painting and laughed delightedly. I was content.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

OUT, OUT BRIEF CANDLE or THE DOOMED CAREER OF JANE ADAMS


My flickering career as Jane Adams, cub reporter, started well enough. The editor of one of Rangoon's two daily newspapers asked me to write a Sunday column. His thinking seemed to be that I was young, probably literate, and socially out-and-about.  He wanted a column about parties and dances and visiting dignitaries and anything that might be going on that his reporters weren't in a position to hear about.

Painting: White Water
Great idea.  I could babble on about this and that, have a little fun. Had I known about Rupert Murdoch I would have elbowed him out of the way.

I can't remember whose idea it was to appear under a nom de plume.  Perhaps it was my father's – nervous as he probably was at the thought of what I might write. Indeed, looking back, I'm surprised that he went along with the idea at all. However, I invented "Jane Adams", set up the old portable typewriter on a desk on the veranda, and hammered out my first piece. 

On Sunday it appeared, headed "Rangoon Diary". It wasn't bad for a beginner. There were descriptions of a glittering evening at the Strand Hotel and a grand reception attended by everyone who was anyone and many who weren't.  I went to town on clothes and atmosphere, and tried to give an impression of sophistication. And there was a jolly anecdote about my friend Leo falling out of a dinghy after a long curry and lager lunch.  

There was quite a to-do about the column in the next few days. It was a change from world news, shipping arrivals and departures, and the activities of insurgents up-country. And – buzz, buzz – who was Jane Adams?  Leo was puzzled: who had seen him in the lake? In fact plenty of people – and many more heard the story afterwards, so I was safely anonymous. Jane Adams was busy gathering material for her next column, keeping her eyes open and her mouth shut.

Column two: Jane Adams had been to the theatre for a performance of an Agatha Christie play and also reported on a visit by a British Navy ship and a dance hosted by the Caledonian Society. Crucially, she mentioned Leo again because he had been ya-hooing his way around Rangoon hot-spots.  Leo's boss was furious and had him on the carpet first thing Monday morning. Leo, and soon everyone else, had worked out who Jane Adams was.

Jane Adams was mortified. Without realising it, she – I – had become that pathetic, despicable creature, a gossip columnist, although that term was probably not yet in common use. I didn't have the hide for the job, thank goodness. All yours, Mr Murdoch.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH


I attended a meeting the other day to talk about what I could and couldn't do about my quake-damaged house. We talked about the options, two of which were to re-build where I am or move elsewhere. I like this area. I like the people around me. It is a proper neighbourhood, the kind which took time to develop, where people look out for each other in a special way. There's a difference between friends and neighbours.

Landscape (detail)

Friends live all over town, not just around your place. They meet for lunch or meetings, shopping or coffee. They ring to chat. They come in many different guises: some know everything about you, and others hardly anything. Some remember your birthday, others stand beside you no matter what. So, deciding to move, and deciding where to move, doesn't depend on where your friends are.

Neighbours, on the other hand, are people who are around on a daily, informal basis - a wave as you walk past, a cheery hi across the fence. They check your bedroom curtains are open, or at least twitching, before they leave for work, and notice your lights going on and off at appropriate times. They bring your rubbish bin up from the bottom of the drive if they see it languishing there late in the day. They check after earthquakes to see if you're OK. They borrow an egg or a cup of sugar because they are making muffins for the kids. They leave bags of apples or beans or corn-cobs on the doorstep. They feed your pets when you're away. They come to the rescue when a fuse blows or the gutters overflow or a tree needs pruning. Neighbours are the people you ring if your power or water goes off, to see if theirs is off too and to offer candles. Neighbours are part of your life, the people who are there.

The easy answer to the dilemma, therefore, seems obvious: stay where I am and have the house re-built. But it's not that simple. The neighbourhood is changing in subtle ways and it may not be the same for ever. Or even until next year. Someone said love your neighbour – but don't pull down the fences. Our fences are looking gap-toothed, drunk and disorderly these days but they are still standing. So are the neighbourhood values. For now.

Monday, September 3, 2012

QUAKE #1 to QUAKE #11,929 – AND COUNTING


Two years ago on this day, 4th September 2010, we here in Christchurch, New Zealand, were woken at 4.35am by a terrifying, booming, rolling noise. Our houses were rocking. Chimneys were crashing down. Roads were cracking. Walls were crumbling. Houses were splitting open. Underground pipes were bursting. Liquefaction bubbled out of the ground and spread. Power poles toppled over. Our city was falling down.

Watercolour: Flowers
We didn't know all that at first. In fact I woke up, noted with sleepy interest that everything was rattling about. Ah, earthquake I thought. When it eventually stopped, believe it or not, I went back to sleep.

It wasn't until I woke an hour or so later and turned on the radio (yes, I had power – most didn't) that I learned that Christchurch had been hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and several after-shocks. Gradually the extent of the damage was revealed, and as the day dawned and the stories began coming through, the seriousness of the situation grew clearer.

Amazingly, nobody died that day, and only one person was seriously injured by, I think, a falling ceiling. The damage was dreadful, but nobody died. What we didn't know then is that that was just the beginning. After-shocks continued. The experts said that they would go on, maybe for months. They did. And, unbelievably, they still do. I checked this morning to find that there have been six after-shocks in the last twenty-four hours, and the total is now 11,929.

Some of the after-shocks have been severe enough to be deemed "new events": Boxing Day 2010 and 22 February 2011 and 13 June 2011 and 23 December 2011. The February "event" was a truly black one because it was far more destructive and 185 people died that day when buildings collapsed on and around them.

Today, two years later, we look at our ruined city – and it really is ruined. The central business district is full of empty spaces where 1600 buildings once stood. There is also much to be done rebuilding people's houses, and mending the land and the pipes and the roads and the bridges, and people's lives and livelihoods. If we had known all that, two years ago today, our hearts might have failed us. But we have learned to deal with it all, day by day.

And now there is a new plan to rebuild the city, brighter and better. It will take a long time, and it looks as though it will be beautiful. Kia kaha, Christchurch.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

THE LIVING ROOM


I don’t have a studio like a proper painter. And an ordinary house is no place to paint for someone who can knock a jar of painty water off a coffee table or a bookcase with a grand gesture or a careless flick of an elbow. 
Painting: Reflections


The garage is the obvious place to do it. No worries about mess.  However it is full of grease and glue, paint (the wrong kind), firewood, garden implements, nuts and bolts and other metal things including the car. And it’s too dark unless the tilt-door is open, and then it’s too cold or windy.  Except in summer.

I have tried setting up the easel on the deck. It was a charming idea: bees buzzing, dappled sunlight, flowers, the scent of freshly mown grass, maybe a straw hat on my head – very French provincial, and sometimes it helps to at least look the part. But flying insects consider wet-paint irresistible and frequently commit hari-kari rather messily in it. 

So, a room in the house seems the only option. The only room that isn't otherwise used for eating, sleeping, cooking, entertaining or watching television is my office, the place where I work. It already contains three bookcases, a filing cabinet, a large desk (door-size), the computer and its accessories, an armchair and the other chair, and two radios – one tuned to cosy, mindless background music, pop and piffle, and the other to worthy stuff like the news and documentaries. But this room has to also, sometimes, accommodate an easel and all the other messy paraphernalia that goes with painting pictures. In fact this room is where, at home, I spend most of my life, winter or summer.

How absurd that is. I should use the big room, the living room, for living and working. There is a log burner and a heat pump (which I never use). There is plenty of light and space. It's handy to the kitchen for coffee and nibbles. The deck is beckoning, right there through the sliding doors, ready to soothe in those times when the words slither about in my head and disappear into crevices, when the ideas that seemed so promising, so brilliant in the middle of the night melt into nothing, when the paint turns to mud.

But there are problems about working in the living room – the painty water for a start. And there is something ridiculously suburban about not wanting to greet casual visitors by waving a paintbrush, or indeed while peering at a computer screen and surrounded by books and papers. That's all kind of private. It's where the magic happens, but only when I'm done, not while I'm in the middle of doing. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

OUT WITH DOMESTIC GODDESSES


On the radio the other day I heard that women wished they had learned some of the domestic skills that their mothers and grandmothers had, like making jam, knitting, sewing on buttons and rustling up a Victoria sponge.


Painting: Waterfront
Surely we've moved on. Except for sewing on a button, no one needs to do any of that unless they want to. And anybody can replace a button. Here's how: thread needle with cotton, tie knot at one end, hold button in place on fabric with thumb and forefinger and poke needle through little holes in button, back and forth, until it stays put. Tie another knot. Cut thread. It's cheaper than buying a new shirt. An alternative is to staple the shirt sleeves together like my uncle Buster did.

As for the rest, I was reminded of my friend Felicity, whose professor had a chat to her before she was married. He asked if she could cook. She said she could, a little. The professor looked worried: had she told her fiancé that? Yes, she confessed.  He pursed his lips: do you think it was wise, Felicity, to tell your husband-to-be that you can cook? I was also reminded of a famous film star (male) who said of a famous film star (female) who had enjoyed a luminous career as a perky but innocent young woman, that he had known her before she became a virgin.  

The lesson is that you can't regain lost virginity and you can't unlearn a skill. If you let on that you can cook, you can't take it back, you end up doing the cooking, and many a woman has rued the day her mother handed her a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl and showed her how.

Making jam, now. That takes hours in a hot, steamy kitchen, and by the time fruit has been stoned, prepared, weighed, boiled, tested and bottled, you won't feel like cleaning up the sticky mess left behind by the process. There are now many excellent jams on the supermarket shelves. That's progress. No one knits unless they actually enjoy doing it, for many reasons. Knitting a jumper, say, takes weeks or even months, the wool is expensive, and knitted garments are widely available, cheaper factory-made, and usually machine-washable. As for Victoria sponges, what's wrong with picking one up at the bakery?  That's progress too.

The reason why hardly anyone does any of those chores now becomes clear: it is easier, quicker and often cheaper to buy stuff.  A haberdashery shop will even sew on a button if you've run out of staples, leaving more time to spend on more interesting pursuits. Which could of course be knitting.



Friday, August 17, 2012

FIRST NAME TERMS

Whenever I put my elbows on the dining table now I do so with a silent apology to my elders and betters. It's hard to ignore old rules, and while no disapproving grandmother ever leaned over with a fork to lever my elbow off the table, that's how many children learned. Elbows on the table, along with talking with your mouth full and eating peas off a knife, was a breach of good table manners, and good manners mattered. Once upon a time parents only needed to say "manners!" with a warning frown to bring a child into line.

Painting: Orange

Some of the old rules seem absurd today, and there is sometimes a clash between generations. So you get people yelling a lot at the television during "Downton Abbey" or "Pride and Prejudice" because they know that in those days they didn't do that, whatever that was. For example young women, unless very grand indeed, would not remain seated if an older woman came into the room.  Mr Darcy, however displeased, would never leave Elizabeth Bennett in the middle of the dance floor when the band stopped playing, he would escort her back to her family.

Not so long ago Noël Coward, writing to T. E. Lawrence who was hiding in the Royal Air Force as 338171 Aircraftman Ross, began his letter with "Dear 338171 (may I call you 338?)".  This was of course a joke, but underlying that was a principle. Coward understood the etiquette around the delicate process of advancing an acquaintanceship to something closer, to what was called first name terms.

That concept has now lost all meaning because everybody is on first name terms with everybody else, even strangers. I get mail with "Hi [first name]!" from a number of sources simply because I have been required to put all my names into their little boxes and they, by default, assume that the first name is the right name and that it is a friendly way to address someone. I never use my first name, don't like it, and have often not answered to it by mistake. It makes me cringe, especially when people telephone and say "is that [first name]?". Obviously they don't know me or anything about me, and it's hard not to slam the phone down before finding out what they want.

I don't think that it is a friendly practice because it debases the word. A friend is someone you have come to know, trust and like. Using a first name implies that we have progressed from stranger to friend, and to assume otherwise is not good manners. P. J. O'Rourke said that good manners were a combination of intelligence, education, taste and style. I would add sensitivity.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

EUTERPE: MASTER ALEC'S ALBATROSS

I wonder if the souls of those who sailed the lonely seas a century or more ago now roam the ether wringing their hands and accosting people like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who drew his cross-bow and shot the albatross. They should.  If Euterpe's passengers and crew were anything to go by, they dealt to an eye-watering haul of marine life and aquatic birds including, sad to say, the magnificent albatross, in the name of sport.

On the voyage of 1879 my great uncle Alec started it.  He was fourteen, and sailing to New Zealand with his father, the almost legendary Captain Phillips. It is, for me, a mournful story as recorded in the ship's newspaper. It seems that Master Phillips tossed out a baited line, tempting an albatross to alight on the water and take a bite. The bait proved fatal to the bird for it had hardly got it into its mouth than it felt something was wrong, but all its efforts to regain freedom were fruitless.

After being drawn by the beak through the water the bird was finally hauled on board.  It made desperate efforts to bite its captors so the bill was taped shut for safety. The albatross measured ten feet across the wings from tip to tip and its "plumage was a beautiful white colour with slight tints of primrose". After being paraded for the excited passengers it was, of course, killed.

Alec's albatross was the first of many on that voyage, but the man responsible for catching most of them was Mr Harry Middleton, described as "our excellent bird-catcher". He dried the skins and made them into muffs, the feet were used for tobacco pouches, the wing bones apparently made first class pipe stems from 18 to 24 inches long, and even the skull was preserved and even (ugh) stuffed.  These trophies were auctioned off or given away, and the bodies were thrown overboard as being too tough to eat.

How could they? we now ask, with our greater knowledge, understanding and sensitivity. But in those days shooting, spearing and fishing for anything that appeared on the vast, empty, lonely ocean was a welcome distraction, and presumably no one thought about conservation, let alone compassion. The world was teeming with resources and a few birds and fish counted for nothing. But there were thousands of sailing ships, and hundreds of thousands of bored passengers looking for something to do. Now we have to save what's left.

If the ghost of my great uncle Alec should appear before me, like the ancient mariner, whingeing about not being able to sleep for guilt, I'd be tempted to sock him in the eye.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

THE LAST TIME I TOOK FASHION ADVICE FROM A MONKEY...


 ... was in London. A chimpanzee at Chessington Zoo went wild. He saw me, went really, really still, and glared. Next thing, he started chattering, shrieking and throwing things through the bars of his thankfully solid enclosure. Banana skins, apple cores, scrunched up paper, cigarette packets – anything that people had thrown at him, he started throwing at me.  And he was a dead shot. It was definitely me he was after, because when I moved he changed direction, never taking his angry eyes off me for a moment.  It was, I think, my home-made, acid-green sweater that set him off. It was a seriously horrible colour and it probably hurt his eyes.
Painting: Summer

People gathered to watch. And laugh. Some laughed so hard they buckled at the knees. Others, even the friends I was with, provided more ammunition for the chimp by picking up what he'd thrown and tossing it back.  A wide circle of empty space grew around me as people melted away to a safe distance. It was rather mortifying to be the target of a monkey's rage.

That's probably how a certain Mr Sorrentino, apparently a reality show person, felt last year when an upmarket clothing manufacturer offered him a substantial payment to stop wearing their clothes. They were concerned that Mr Sorrentino’s association with their brand could cause significant damage to their image. I don't know what Mr Sorrentino did to deserve that, but I do wonder where it could end. Will there be more manufacturers, and maybe even department stores, being picky about the people who wear their clothes?  

Once upon a time, on good days, I used to scrub up not too badly. The acid-green sweater and other horrors were long gone. Nowadays I dress for comfort, and the current fashion climate – casual, bordering on slack – suits me fine. I try not to sink so far as to attract the kind of slur that Jonathan Swift was moved to utter when he said of someone that she wore her clothes as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.

Thank goodness for op-shops, of which I am a loyal customer. They have a huge selection of clothing, from cheap and cheerful to designer seconds. Nobody hovers at your elbow. They don’t fuss about their image. I hold to the illusion that, at least when I bought them, most of the leisure clothes in my wardrobe are good quality op-shop.  Monkeys can please keep their opinions to themselves.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

THE DOG AND THE LAMP-POST

I have been embroiled in on-line discussions lately about the ticklish business of literary quality control. The chatter ranged around such matters as how emerging writers know if what they are working on is any good, and how to fix problems when they are encountered.  If it's any help (and it probably won't be if I know writers, and I do) it is not only emerging writers who have such concerns. Almost all writers, at any stage of their careers, lack a critical layer of protective skin, are deeply insecure and crave praise and encouragement.
Geraniums

Christopher Hampton, British writer and dramatist, remarked that asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs. Well, just ask me. I'm a working writer and a critic, both roles of long-standing. So sometimes I'm the lamp-post and sometimes I'm the dog. Here's my take on the question of quality control.

It can be helpful for writers to consult others when problems arise – not just other writers but people who can be trusted to have sensible, thoughtful opinions. Other people are, ultimately, the reading public, they must be seduced, and writers have to learn how to do that. Given enough opinions from enough people, a struggling writer can arrive at a kind of consensus and carry on writing with some confidence. Even opposing opinions can be helpful: your BFF Kerri loves it – that's great! but so does your cousin Garfield, which is a bit of a worry, but then Dad said it was a load of cobblers, so maybe it's okay after all. That is feedback, and valuable in its own way.

At a later stage of the writing process, when the story or novel is finished, and written as well as it can be, the writer needs to know if it passes a more critical evaluation before sending the precious work out into the real world. He or she needs to find someone, or a small group, to cast a fresh, critical and knowledgeable eye over the work, to examine it for inconsistencies, to identify weaknesses and suggest improvements. This is critiquing and requires certain skills and experience.  

Speaking as the dog, it is not possible to critique a half-baked work in progress. Speaking as the lamp-post, please be honest, but also considerate of my feelings and my ego!

P.S. 27 July: A reader couldn't resist and has contributed the following:

Said the lamp post to the dog
“My poor nerves are fraught today.”
Said the dog in quick reply
“Just get tough and look away!”