Saturday, 30 May 2009

Juno the Headless Chicken and Fathers Day. Wednesday 27 May 2009

This year Jim will receive his card in time for Fathers Day; not on Tuesday the week after Fathers Day not on Wednesday the week after Fathers Day.You find an excellent card in the nice things cupboard; a card using an E. H. Shepard illustration of the avuncular Mr Toad. Toad is reading the newspaper with his feet up next to his caravan. Jim has never expressed any fondness for caravans, or for toads, but Jim is the funniest and most humane person you’ve ever known and the character of Toad of Toad Hall conveys a fine air of wit and benevolence.
You have the wisdom to steal a stamp from Ian as you leave the house. You also lift a two pound coin and a couple of twenty pence pieces. You’re going to a Poetry Reading this evening and you’ll need some spends. Ian won’t miss the change so you slip them in your jacket pocket. Then you have to shuffle up to him for a goodbye kiss, with every muscle tensed, so you don’t chink.

You’re on the way to work. It’s 8.15 am and you career to a halt when you spy a parking space right outside the sub-Post Office; what a coup! You rummage in the bag and there’s a blue ballpoint pen; it’s all going swimmingly. You give your hands a swab with a Fresh’n’Nice wipe; you don’t want any grubby fingerprints on this one.
Jim’s Fathers Day card isn’t going to be sloppy or rushed. You lean on a firm, flat surface. That big grey folded plastic wallet thingie from the glove compartment, the one that would tell you how to change the clock to British Summer Time in twenty three different languages, if you had the time to read it. You write the envelope very carefully and there are no major issues. You still remember the address. Well, you should do; you lived there for sixteen years. No postcode; they didn’t hold with postcodes in the olden days and Jim doesn’t hold with them now.
On to the card; date in the top right hand corner, ‘June 2009’ (a nice writerly touch). Make sure it’s still good and flat and that you’re not going to do wobble-writing as you go over the wallet press-stud. You're at the top of your game; best lettering now:
‘to Dad happy birthda…’
You weigh up the options.
Ditch the card and buy another?
That card cost a lot of money and Jim loathes waste. The sub-Post Office is closed and you need to send the card and get to work. The sub-Post Office only sell cards with wheelbarrows and bottles of red wine as illustrations; not tasteful Toads. And, you’ve only got two pounds forty to your name.
Cross out ‘birthda’ and make a joke of your incompetence?
It’s hardly funny. Is this really the occasion to confirm to Jim that he's fathered a spanner?
Remove the front unmarked Toad of Toad Hall picture-half of the card and write on the back of that; pretend it’s the modern thing?
No scissors and it’s manifestly the cheapskate thing. For all Jim knows you could be reusing a card you’d received yourself for Caravan Day or Toad Day.
Overwrite 'birthda' to convert it into 'father'?
What have you got to lose?
On reflection, your writing is a bit scribbly. The tip of the blue ballpoint had gathered fluff in the bag so some bits of the lettering are missing anyway; it shouldn’t be too difficult to disguise the partial word. Imagine, if you hadn’t realised in nick of time and you’d written the final ‘y’ of birthday; you would never have been able to recover from that. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Easy enough to transform the ‘bi’ into a cosy ‘fa’.
The ‘r’ is fine as it is; just go over it again so it’s as dark as the ‘fa’ (you can match-up the ‘happy’ in a minute).
‘th’ belongs anyway, that is a piece of good fortune.
This is the tricky bit; the round part of the ‘d’ is converted into an ‘e’. then you draw a little cap on the upright of the ‘d’ which creates an (admitted rather tall and slightly curly) ‘r’.
Just add a slightly larger than life-size ‘s’ so that the 'r' doesn't feel left out.
No need for an apostrophe - because fathers don’t own the day.
There, nobody would know any different.

What is it about words you’ve carefully corrected? Why do they always look a little bit Not Quite Right?
A Fathers Day cards advertisement in the sub-Post Office window catches your eye and you see that there isn’t an ‘r’ after ‘fa’ in father.
No. Bum.

So you concede defeat on the posting front and you take the card to work. You can post it at the real-Post Office when you go down into town later. When you go down into to town to find out where the correct Entry Door and the correct Standing Place is for the Poetry Reading this evening. The card will be safer posted at the real-Post Office anyway and it’ll probably still get there tomorrow.

At work you find a piece of funny shiny cream paper in the recycling bin and you fashion it to the right size to cover the incorrect writing. You cut it nicely with the guillotine and everything; although the guillotine guidelines have worn patchy with use, so the paper is still a bit wonky.
You glue the parallelogram of shiny cream paper carefully in the card over the incorrect writing. The incorrect writing is completely covered and only slightly visible. The shiny cream paper makes the card look like one of those hand-made efforts that you buy at a craft fair because you feel sorry for the person who made it.
You write the correct and beautifully spelt message in broad black Staedtler Permanent (Dry Safe) Lumocolor overhead marker pen. This doesn’t match the blue ballpoint date, ‘June 2009’ in the top right hand corner, but it does bleed slightly into the shiny cream paper, thereby helping to conceal the incorrect writing underneath.
Sadly, the funny shiny cream paper doesn’t seem to agree with the (Dry Safe) pen and, after five minutes, the lettering is still a bit smudgy if you catch the edges. So you anchor the card with a mug and point the fan at it for the morning.
When you realise that the lettering is as dried up as it’s going to get this century you remove the mug.
You resist the temptation to rub at the nasty ring mark with your finger; you know from harsh experience that only makes it worse. And with a bit of luck Jim won’t be able to find his spectacles when he opens the card anyway.
You fold the card carefully and slide it into the nicely addressed envelope and lean it in a prominent position against your monitor until you set off for town.

You haven’t been to a Poetry Reading at this venue before. You get very anxious in new situations so you intend to spend your dinnertime wisely by establishing:
Where The Building is.
Which Entry Door you’re meant to enter The Building by.
Where the special Poetry Reading Room is in relation to the Entry Door.
Where you’re allowed to stand in the special Poetry Reading room.
The Poetry Reading reconnaissance isn’t as successful as you might have hoped. You discover The Building easily enough; it’s where it was meant to be. But when you go inside The Building to the Information Place the helper-man is stern and intimidating. He tells you to,
‘Speak up!’ when you ask about the venue for this evening’s Poetry Reading. You repeat your primary query.
‘Where will I get in to come to the Poetry Reading this evening?’
He shakes his head.
‘It’ll probably be the entrance ‘round the side'.'
‘Side? What Side?’
This is the first indication you’ve had that The Building has anything other than a front, and possibly a back.
He waves airily in the direction of nowhere.
‘The Side. Sometimes they use that way, but they change their minds. I never know what’s going on.’
So, the helper-man doesn’t really know what’s going on.
Because you're disoriented you forget to ask to see the special Poetry Reading room so you can select a likely looking standing place.
This is your worst nightmare. Not only an unknowable standing place but an ill-defined Side Entrance too. You go out on the street and look for The Side Entrance. You locate a Side but, from where you’re standing on the pavement, there’s no trace of an Entrance. You walk up along what you take to be a building Side and locate a probable Entrance in a recess in the putative Side wall. You return to work, badly shaken.
You start to tell your patient friend about your disagreeable experience and your fears for the Poetry Reading this evening. Then you notice the nicely addressed Fathers Day card envelope leant in a prominent position against your monitor.
Your patient friend soothes you. She seats you on the best office chair and administers tea and three funny foreign-looking Balocco (cacao) wafer biscuits. The foreign-looking wafer biscuits have crouched morosely by the kettle since January, when people brought their unwanted Christmas fare to work. They are actually quite agreeable and they deliver a remedial shot of chemicals and sugar.
With your reason restored you decide you will post the Fathers Day card this evening, on the way home, after the Poetry Reading. That way, at least Jim should receive it by Monday.
And, looking on the bright side, you’ve probably worked out the origin of the term ‘guidelines’.

I trained as an archaeologist but I usually prefer messy prehistoric people to Romans.
Romans always give the impression of being obsessively and compulsively organised. However, I’ve just visited the site of the Vindolanda Roman fort in Northumberland; actually the location is a palimpsest of many forts and civilian settlements superimposed on each other over the centuries. It is a wonderful place to visit. Mainly because the thoughtful Birley family, who maintain and run Vindolanda, use anthropological remains to interpret the messy everyday lives of all the individuals associated with the forts and settlements over time, the everyday lives of the bakers, babies, farmers, poorly soldiers, prostitutes and wives; not just the military organisers. This photograph is of Juno, a reproduction statue at Vindolanda. Juno is the nearest thing to a headless chicken I have to illustrate my Fathers Day story.

The story is written in second person. When I began writing seriously I couldn’t imagine finding any use for a second person narrative but gradually I grew fond of the point of view, I find it quite chummy. I was reminded of how much I've grown to appreciate second person when I read the short story entitled 'Colour Fractions' by Mollie Baxter in Before the Rain.

In my case second person allows me to use humour to confront repressed truth. The truth behind my Fathers Day story is my need to insure against social opprobrium. I imagine that if I’m more Roman-like in my obsessive compulsive organisation I’ll avoid feeling inept and uncomfortable in new situations. To write about that in first person would be tedious and self-obsessed but to wrap it up in a narrative makes it less indulgent.

As my other reader may remember, my second favourite rock is orthoclase feldspar-pink Shap Granite. This is a photograph of a swing-bin at Vindolanda; the swing-bin has been fashioned from faux Granite (with its creamy-grey colouration the swing bin is more akin to Dartmoor Granite than to Shap Granite). I'm guessing the granite-like swing-bin was purchased by the Birley family in deference to the fact that the site is of historical significance. I call that another very thoughtful thing to do.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Scary hairdressing-ladies and workshopping creative non-fiction. Wednesday 20 May 2009.

A few months ago I compiled a self-important list of 25 things about myself; a sort of Facebook meme. Number 8 on my list is:
8). I always feel intimidated in libraries. And hospitals. And most shops. I never know where the proper standing-place is.

I was fresh from an awkward experience in the library in town when I wrote the list. I was waiting in the improper standing-place to return an Audio CD. Library-people could see me waiting in the improper standing-place clutching my Audio CD looking as if I'd finished with it, but no one told me I was muddled. They smell your fear you know.

I am, incidentally, a librarian, but it doesn’t help. Or maybe it does help; I just wouldn’t even be able to set foot inside a library if I wasn’t actually one of the cognoscenti. And understanding informatics (which I don’t) wouldn’t help me to know where the proper standing-place is in an alien library.

Anyway, there’s somewhere more intimidating than libraries, hospitals and shops. Hairdressing places.

I have Winnie Madikizela-Mandela-type hair, not that I’m black you understand. I just have big hair. I was born in Liverpool. When I was nineteen I nursed a West Indian lady who said one of my great-granddads definitely came off the banana boats. I’m pretty sure I can say that – it’s my hair and my great-grandad so I’m not being unacceptable I’m being self-aware and ironic; post-modern (more of which next week).

For about five months in the early 1970s, when posters for Hair: the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, were everywhere, I was temporarily stylish. Since then I haven’t been hip at all and I’ve never really known what to do, so I keep the hair short lest I put people in mind of Paul Breitner.

Recently, I’ve decided I’d like to experience that giddy sense of being a hair-do leader once again.

For months I’ve tramped the rounds of hairdressing shops. I’m working on the assumption that if the shop charges a lot of money their hairdresser-ladies must be well trained and kind and full of ideas. I want someone to advise me and then style my hair so that it suites me and makes me modern (or Mod, as Auntie Pam would say).

True enough, expensive hairdressers do provide a consultation. But what good is that when the hairdresser-lady’s a flaxen moppet with a silky-do like Minxie Geldoff’s. She seats you in a black vinyl chair; already you’re pasted to it with sweat; apologising.
‘What do you want?’ Minxie chafes your raspy head with the pointy-end of a pointy-ended comb.
‘Dunno, I want to look nice.’
‘Mmmmmm… we’re a bit limited with short hair,’ she pokes tentatively again (did you see her lip curl?).
‘I’m sorry.’
(Don’t state the bleeding obvious Minxie. Do you know how hard it was for me to come in here in the first place?)
‘Shall I just tidy it up?
‘Okay, just tidy it up.’
So, she tidies it up, rasp, rasp, raspy-rasp. In a belated attempt at styling she glues wispy bits forward onto your face, a bit like Liza Minnelli.

Why do young pretty hairdressers with hair like Minxie Geldof imagine that middle-aged women are enchanted by wispy bits or crappy kiss-curls? Would you choose to look like Liza Minnelli, Minxie? Wispy bits scare me. That’s something else for the list.

Then, you’ve tipped Minxie a tenner because you want her to like you (why?) and you’re scared of her and the receptionist thinks you’re ecstatic with your liza-look and you’ll need another appointment in four weeks time. You can’t go back to the same hairdressers and ask for someone else. You can’t say,
‘No, not scary Minxie, give me a hairdresser-lady who understands about afro hair.’ You can’t because that would be unacceptable rather than post-modern; and because the receptionist is terrifying too. So you make a ruddy appointment and have to get your friend at work to phone up and cancel for you. Then you have to avoid that street for a year or two. There’s barely a street I can venture along now without the aid of camouflage. In the end I might to have to grow my own fright-wig disguise.

What is wrong with me? Why can’t I march into a hairdresser shop and demand to know who can style my curly hair and not leave me looking like a 1970s footballer or a legendary singing star?

When they start with their raspy-rasp poking and excuses why can’t I say,
Don’t look at me pityingly. Don’t ask me what I want or tell me there’s not much you can do. You’re the trained expert; expertly help me. And, while we’re on the subject of experts, stop making me feel stupid – you’re a hairdresser-lady, I’ve got a science degree (first class hons)’.

Why can’t I do that? Because I’m scared and intimidated, that’s why. And a little bit because it’d be rude too.

I submitted a blog post for workshopping as a creative nonfiction piece. It hasn’t been workshopped yet but the Writer with the Writerly Name was very encouraging and suggested I enter the Flax competition.

I was very touched and I will enter, but this time I won’t be thinking.
’What’ll I do if I don’t win?’
I won’t be thinking that because I can sit here and touch a dozen blistering-blogs without even stretching, for example: Every Day I Lie a Little , My Shitty Twenties , Mollie Baxter, Dave Hartley and I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car.

Thank you to James Fraser for my little bit scary and intimidating kisscurl drawing.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Carol Ann Duffy, Myra Hindley and the Prize. Wednesday 13 May 2009.

This week we looked at Carol Ann Duffy’s World’s Wife. The Agreeable Doctor pointed out some other bits of knowledge that should have been bleeding obvious, even to me; titles matter and collections of poetry have a form. Duffy’s collection seems so proceed from her girlhood through to her feeling about her own daughter.

Duffy based a poem on Little Red Riding Hood and called it Little Red Cap – I’d thought, ‘that’s funny,’ and left it at that. I might have thought, ‘maybe that’s what Americans call the story.’ The girl character in the animation Hoodwinked! was called Red after all.

(I’ve just looked at Hoodwinked! on IMBd and found out about the Rashomon effect; boundless potential for me to waffle with that).

But of course Red Cap has been named for a purpose. One friend suggested it’s an updating; nobody wears riding hoods anymore but the hepcats do wear caps.

Little Red Cap acknowledges sexuality in adolescent girls (which just made me think of another thing the title might allude to). The line,
‘what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?’
reminded me of a recent episode of Coronation Street. A grown-up character speaks about being seduced by a friend’s father at 14. She admits that she liked him; looked forward to seeing him when she came to the house. I was impressed with the courage of the scriptwriters for including such candid dialogue.

As mentioned I entered two creative writing competitions. I was a sickly-mix crippled by self-doubt and plagued by what I’d do if I didn’t win. Worse still - how I’d cope if someone from my class won.

I was awarded joint first in the Andrea Pendlebury poetry award and joint second in the Helen Clark prose award. Book tokens and wine (artfully arranged above); very nice. The last time I receive a wrtiting prize was in 1968.
(THIS is being said in a surly, mean-spirited, little inner voice, not for consumption by the polite, generous spirited reader. Still reading? Right. I didn’t really want to be a joint winner. I know that makes me a peevish person – despite my claims to the contrary. And I didn’t want to be awarded joint second; as my so-called friends pointed out, ‘If the prose award had joint firsts too, then joint second is like fourth. And maybe there were only four entries.’) Well.

I know, I know, even just thinking that in my nasty little inner voice is bad karma – even if you don’t believe in crap. And this time next year I’ll be wishing I could get a mention never mind a half-second; I know that.

Oh, and it was someone from my class who was awarded joint first for the poetry award. Well done, I actually am pleased for you, because you are a proper poet who can write proper poetry. I still don’t really get it; sometime I catch myself - wondering if it isn’t actually all a hoax…
My poem is the one about the dead baby, the first poem I wrote, and is called Long line of times, if I can figure out a way of making a link to it I will. (I've done it but not sure if it's a good way.) I still feel hesitant about this poem, because it seems exploitative and calculating, but it is sad, and it was sad

The friend who presented on a genre this week focused particularly on Duffy’s The Devil’s Wife, a poem about Myra Hindley. She was brave because it’s an uncomfortable poem – but one that I keep being drawn back to as well. Duffy never mentions her subject but the reader immediately senses who is being written about. It feels as if the screenplay for the recent television drama about Hindley was taken straight from the poem.

A couple of photos of the bad squirrel who would eat all the bird nuts as a snack, and wreck the feeder, if I didn’t hang them on the pricky monkey puzzle tree. Here he is being shifty, first looking one way then the other way before he tries to scamper up the tree wearing some quilted mittens (just kidding about the mitts).

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Controlling idea, premise, subject and theme, a love-sick finch and tractors in macs. Wednesday 6 May 2009.

Before workshopping our writing we thought again about what we were writing about; controlling idea, premise, subject and theme or world view. Nancy Kress and Robert McKee are the bods for this stuff and I’m seeing it in context now that I’ve tried to write a short story.
It seems so obvious, of course, but identifying your theme makes writing easier because you can choose scenes, events and imagery that reflect that word view. Oh yes.

I know it is obvious when Kress and McKee say it but most obvious things are a revelation to me. For a long time I couldn't understand why skirting-boards in other peoples' houses weren't like mine; defined by a ridged detail of sooty dust. One day I caught a friend at work with a bowl of soapy water and a scrubby cloth.

'Does everyone do that?'

'Think so'

'Do they? How often? Christ it’s all slotting into place now. Oh my goodness! Is that why other people have tidy bathroom windowsills too?'

Why is there this conspiracy of silence over helpful information just because it’s obvious?

With the Writer with the Writerly Name we workshopped our stories. No one was harshly criticised but we were palpably subdued by the end. I think we’ve realised that having the story is only the start; now we have to make that story believable and alive, and all before the end of May.

My office has recently acquired solar reflecting glass which is a bit mirrory from the outside. There were a pair of chaffinches out on the cement ledge a few days ago; a plain brown-job hen and a rosy cock (yes, yes, very funny). The male was peck, peck pecking at the window, level with our ankles, all day.

At first I though he was pecking at tiny insects. I couldn’t see any but I imagined they were only visible to the naked finch-eye, or maybe he was locating them by ultrasound or smell or radar or some other finchian special-power. Sometimes though, he really launched himself at the glass. A man visited the office for referencing advice and said the little cock wasn’t eating; he was defending his territory against his own reflection. Sure enough the little brown hen hadn’t pecked at the glass all day – I suppose I imagined she wasn’t hungry or she’d eaten a cracker-bread the day before.

The little brown hen hopped around on the ledge patiently all day whilst the battle raged. Around 4 o’clock she disappeared. The cock was still having it out with himself when I left work; his poor little face surely must have been sore and he can only have been exhausted. Eventually he’s going to have to concede his territory to his own reflection but it won’t matter by then because he was so busy scrapping that he didn’t notice his missus gone. The event felt like a parable but I’m not sure what the moral of the story is.

I know the photo is of a Blue Tit. I didn’t have my camera at work. I hang the bird nuts on my primeval looking monkey puzzle tree to deter squirrels who steal all of them (and demolish the bird feeder) in one go. But I feel a bit ambivalent about doing that because squirrels are only being squirrels, they didn’t be born and then think, ‘I’m going to be a pest and wreck bird feeders.’ They are just helping themselves to a yummy snack. But then blue bottles are just being blue bottles and I generally don’t feel undecided about whacking them with a rolled up copy of the Daily Mirror.

The other two photographs are of tractors wearing macs on the shore at Lytham. Very nice, very nice.