Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ultimate nest-building

My father has been discussing recently the once-in-a-lifetime experience of fixing up the last house he will ever live in. He is enjoying riding rough-shod over the usual set of considerations that go into house-shaping – when you know that at some point you’ll have to sell it to another human being. With no plans ever to move again, he has filled the hall wall cavities with contingency stair lift wiring, and implemented a pressurised air-circulation and heating system that nobody else will ever be able to figure out, let alone make work.

Computer modelling has played a part in the process, as it sometimes does with his sculptures. However, when he made me my very first house for my fourth birthday, the starting point was a plastic swing-bin and a lot of carbon fibre. I remember watching him stirring that pot of thick yellow goo like fibrous custard, with no notion of what it would become.

What was unveiled later (literally – it was too big to wrap) appeared to be a three foot section of a real tree. He had hunted the woods for a fallen elm, carefully peeled strips of bark from the dead trunk, and reconfigured them to perfectly cover this new, irregular cylinder.  This tree, though, had tiny windows, and light glowed from behind their diminutive curtains.

Opening the front of the tree trunk section revealed a slightly less labyrinthine version of this:

Indulging my mouse obsession, and its outlet at the time via Brambly Hedge books, my parents had laboured for months to create three storeys of rustic mousey lifestyle. This was partly to distract me from the impending arrival of a sibling, but that doesn’t diminish their dedication. Kitchen table and chairs, the dresser, even the kitchen sink had been made by hand, after bed-time in clandestine fashion in the basement.

There were walnut and hazel shells for bowls, Quality Street wrappers for glowing coals in the fireplace, a piece of patterned corduroy edged with lace for a rug. Best of all were the mice: fully jointed by my father and dressed in loyal Brambly Hedge style by my mother.

Over the years, as with any house, the furnishings changed. Miniature mouse portraits, painted by my aunt and mounted in delicate frames, appeared on the walls. Later a friend who clearly had never read Brambly Hedge donated a grand piano and matching grandfather clock, which somewhat took over the sitting room. Meanwhile I blithely promised my friends that my dad would make another one for their birthdays, as if it had materialised at the click of a finger.

I never, ever tired of playing with my mouse house. Still, soon after, my father had re-created the harvest mouse’s nest from the same book series. After that, driven by my new fascination with moles, he permanently stained the bath tub while soaking and clamping open cork bark, to create mole tunnels I could populate with anthropomorphised diggers.

The mouse house still exists, as does the harvest mouse’s nest. When we unpacked the mouse house recently so that my father could do some much-needed restoration work, we remembered the terrifying moment when our new cats had found it and poked their paws through the windows to swipe at whatever was inside. How did they know there were mice inside, we wondered?

Twenty years later my cousin, who is young enough to call me Auntie by mistake, benefited from a revival in my father's nest-building. Nest II was born and is pictured here.

Those creations (I can't really bring myself to call them toys, they seem too special) embodied for the small me everything that was wonderful about a home.They were cosy, natural, full of strange joys such as ladders to rooms and secret back doors that still give me a thrill today. I hope that my father is applying the same principles to his own ultimate nest-building and making it into something that appeals to him and gives him joy, regardless of what any future inhabitants might think.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Nablopomo – in at the deep end

I began this blog the day before National Blog Posting Month kicked in, so have posted daily ever since. It’s going to feel strange to reduce this intensity of activity here, as it’s all I’ve ever known in blogging world. Even if I had the time, I wonder whether I’d be able to keep coming up with the content.

On the other hand, I can return my attentions to my novel, which I am looking forward to. That and the short story I need to get down to go into the anthology for my writers’ group. It’s a long time since I’ve written a short story and I’m nervous. Writing posts for this has been a good lesson in concision, which does not come naturally to me, so I hope this will help.

I never stopped thinking about the novel while I was busy generating posts, and some distance has been useful. I found solutions to problems that were slowing me down, and saw how to go on with it. The world I created for the story had not yet been fixed in a particular decade, though it clearly wasn’t quite the 21st century as we know it. I’ve decided to let that slide and just write the world as it is in my head. If it turns out not to be the real world at a real time at all, then that needn’t be a problem.

I thought of posting here as a different kind of writing from the ‘creative’ kind I am usually involved in. When my father told me it felt slightly intrusive to read, a bit like opening my diary, I objected that I was writing here exactly the kinds of things that I’d never bother to put in private journal. That made me wonder… is this a kind of creative writing too? Had I created a persona for Mind and Language that is a lot like me, but not me?

If I had, it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision – there hasn’t been time for that kind of thinking, I’ve just had to write what comes every day and press ‘publish’ before I think too hard about it. On reflection, I think I am writing as me, just perhaps not that much about me.

This is probably a good thing, since I always thought of diaries as repositories for all the things that the world does not want to, or should not, hear about. My first ever diary entry as a twelve year old was a heavily coded rant about the girl at school who insisted on flirting with my heart’s desire in front me. As I recall it went on much in that vein for several years, probably descending into the murk of lovelorn adolescent poetry and intermittent self-loathing. I wouldn’t have the energy, or the requisite raging hormones, to write like that now, thank goodness.

I have other challenges preoccupying me. Do I continue the hunt for an agent for my first novel, or throw myself into another deep end: self-publishing, electronic or otherwise, and the marketing battle? No doubt I’ll report here on the sinking and swimming that results. It’s a whole year until Nablopomo starts again, and a lot can happen in that time.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Come on snow - Diana loves you

I'm still waiting. It feels as though everybody except London has been plunged under the snow queen's spell, and I'm jealous. Fondly I recall that fortnight last year spent in wellington boots, when it seemed as though the pavements really had turned into iced rivers and would flow away when the thaw finally came.

I took these pictures around Henley-on -Thames, where my brother and I dusted down the sledge in the loft and slid triumphantly to the best tobogganing hill. My grandfather made the sledge out of gas piping decades before either of us were born, and it appears to be indestructible as well as unbelievably fast (I'm sitting on it my profile picture, terrified).

I used a colour film to take these photos, though you can hardly tell. I wonder what the result would have been in true black and white, which enhances the contrast. This year, I'm going to try out colour flash filters - little slips of coloured plastic that slide in front of the Diana flash bulb and tint the illuminated world. Snow seems like the best subject for these. When it does arrive, and it better do, I will capture it through Diana's rose-tinted spectacles.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Birth or Not - sneaky, shortsighted or simply wrong?

Nearly two million votes have now been cast on birthornot.com, a website set up by a Minnesotan couple purportedly to let the world decide whether they should abort their foetus or not.

Debate is still raging over whether this site is 'real.' Is it a pro-life publicity stunt? A social experiment? A method of stimulating debate? Any of these would be better than it being a genuine way to let people make the couple’s decision for them, and thankfully this latter option seems unlikely once you take a good look at the website.

Firstly, while some people might be stupid enough to do something like this for real, the couple don’t appear to fit that template. They are educated, articulate, and according to their own accounts have so far led sensible, average lives. They’ve even planned to have a family and been thwarted by two miscarriages.

Add to this the unavoidably provocative set-up of the website. On one side is a box counting down to the last date on which they can legally have an abortion. They plan to let voting continue until the last possible moment, meaning that given the alleged pregnancy is so far successful, if the vote makes it so they would abort a healthy foetus at twenty weeks’ gestation.

This is a surprising approach, especially for a woman who has experienced two miscarriages. Surely this is the kind of decision one makes as quickly as possible? This opinion may just be driven by my own sense that the further into a pregnancy a mother gets, the more morally risky abortion becomes, not to mention physically dangerous. Twenty weeks is the legal cut-off point, but that in itself is a source of great controversy.

Secondly, the blogs published alongside this information include regular ultrasound images of the foetus, nicknamed ‘Wiggles’ by the parents, and developmental details such as when eyelashes first appeared. It was also revealed that Wiggles is a boy.

It is either brave or false of the mother to be engaging affectionately with these details, if she is genuinely open to having an abortion at the behest of a host of anonymous voters, especially given the self-selecting nature of the kind of people who will go and vote on a website like this.

Sure enough, birthornot has attracted attention that cannot be called well-meaning, and voting has been hijacked by a group not acting in the best interests of parents or foetus.

The whole exercise raises so many ethical questions, some of which will be resolved when we find out what the couple behind it are really up to. However, even if the truth in that regard redeems them somewhat, one potential moral objection will remain for me. This is around the use of the ultrasound images.

Where these come from I of course cannot know, but there are several possibilities. The woman may really be pregnant, and they may be actual images of her foetus. If so, there’s a nasty consequence. If her pregnancy goes to full term and a human being grows up, he will inevitably find out about birthornot. Even if his parents were not actually inviting the world to vote on his life, he will know that they used images of him for a cause he may not believe in, and far worse, that in the event millions of people did in fact vote that he should be aborted. This will not be a comfortable discovery for any of them.

If the images are not ‘real’ in this sense, the only morally acceptable source I can think of is that they were donated by their consenting owner. They’d have to be pretty old for this to be the case, and I doubt the likelihood of this possibility.

Lastly, they may be images from a pregnancy that did not result in a living human being. In this case, it’s awfully sad that they are appearing in this particular setting, and would imply a certain amount of callousness on the part of a woman who has suffered miscarriages herself.

I’ll watch with interest as voting closes and the creators of birthornot reveal their true intentions. I hope the answers do redeem them, especially in the case of the ultrasound images, but I can’t say my hopes are high.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Diana's new glasses

Not that her vision isn’t perfect already, but I decided Diana could do with changing her way of seeing now and again. This week they arrived: telephoto and extra-wide angle lenses designed especially for my 100% plastic Diana camera. I can’t wait to start playing with them, and will post the results here when my film has been processed, in a few weeks.

I have to believe in delayed gratification in my analogue photo world. Overall, the lengthy process has some interesting side-effects. When I go to pick up my prints, never quite remembering what I have shot on that particular roll of 120 film, I am invariably disappointed by at least a third of the shots. Heads are chopped off, views are half-blocked by Diana’s looming lens, and over or under exposure completely changes the view I thought I had captured. I sigh and shove these to the back of the green envelope.

Coming back weeks or months later, having forgotten them, it’s often the images at the back that I like the most. They seem to change as the time since the shutter click lengthens. As they become detached from my original intention they become more beautiful and interesting. I suppose they become images in themselves, instead of failed representations of something else. Since they are no longer failing, I take them as they come and I like them.

Representation in art is a funny thing. If the artist says so, then a lollipop stuck in a pincushion is just as much a representation of Kate Middleton as is the inevitable realistic portrait that will be painted of her. One resembles her, the other doesn’t, but if the artists both intend it they both represent her. (Now I think of it, a lollipop stuck in a pincushion is perhaps not such a bad metaphorical representation of Kate M in her new life.)

Likewise an object can resemble another without representing it. The example trotted out in many an aesthetics seminar is that of ants crawling across a beach, which as they surge just happen to make the face of, say, Che Guevara. We test our intuitions by asking, does that insect formation represent Che, in the same way the print on a Che Guevara t-shirt does? The argument begins; is representation about meaning for the viewer, or creator’s intention? Neither? Both? What if there’s no resemblance, and/or no meaning for the viewer (only an alien sees the ants from his flying saucer, oblivious to the existence of Che Guevara)? And so on.

Then this wonderful photograph turned up in most UK papers this week of flamingos in flamingo formation (image courtesy of the Guardian).

They didn’t do it on purpose, but we get double-flamingo (flamingo-go? Probably the Sun caption, I didn’t bother to check). It’s hard to get our heads round the idea that the formation itself (rather than the photo of it) is a resemblance but not a representation. Unless flamingos are even more surprising than we knew.

If I could attribute intentions to Diana, I still wouldn’t be able to say what hers are exactly. I just hope she likes her new glasses as much as I do.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Six month old raspberries

My proudest achievement of the last month has been teaching a six-month old person to blow raspberries. When I explained to Cecelia’s mother that she had imitated my own farty noises, blown in an attempt to entertain, she told me it was the first time her daughter had copied in this way.

She went on to mention that her older daughter had become fascinated with the game hide and seek at exactly the time as, but independently from, her best friend. They had never played it together but when they discovered their shared passion became unstoppable.

This reminded me of some famous experiments in developmental psychology which I garbled to my friend between gulps of hangover tea. I will try to explain them better here.

A child watches a furnished stage set on which Molly doll watches Milly doll hiding. Say Milly gets in the wardrobe. Molly then exits stage left. Milly is made to come out of the wardrobe and hide again, this time under the bed.
Molly returns.

“Where does Molly go to find Milly?” the developmental psychologist asks the child observer.

Before a certain age – something like three to three and a half from memory – the child points under the bed, where she knows the Milly doll is. The conclusion is that the child has not yet learnt to see from another’s point of view, and to be able to reason that the last place Molly saw Milly go was actually into the wardrobe.

Something clicks beyond this age, and quite reliably all children begin to point at the wardrobe. They know that Molly is missing a crucial bit of information, and that her point of view is different from the truth.

This fundamental change in understanding the world is also crucial for hide and seek. If, at a young enough age, a child thinks that other agents, even ones not present, can see and know what she knows, then what would be the point in hiding?

I wondered whether my friend’s daughter and her small friend had gone through this change at the same time and so suddenly ‘got’ hide and seek, which once discovered is endlessly compelling. Part of me hopes this is the right explanation and all that pondering over psychological experiments has finally borne fruit. If not, then it was a lot of fun playing, despite my ultimate humiliation. It’s a lot harder to hide when you’re over five feet tall, after all.

Cecelia may have got the hang of blowing raspberries, but I am making a mental list of all the other funny noises I can teach her next time. I’m a hopeless whistler, though; she’ll have to figure that one out for herself.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Beauty, serenity and all that

I remember my mother’s friend commenting once that she’d seen me from a distance, walking along the street in the town where I grew up, and that I gave off an aura of serenity. At the time I was pleased if a little confused. Perhaps it was my purposeless teenage gait, or the slightly flaky, distant look in my eyes.

Now, in London, serenity can seem hard to come by. It takes an effort of will to remind myself that it’s a state of mind, not the state of the world around me, and that therefore it can be chosen to some extent. There’s no point in waiting for the world to deliver it to me.

When I first moved here I had the same concerns about beauty. I was leaving many things I found beautiful: my open fire, my walls painted a melodramatic purple named ‘Russian velvet,’ the views of misted green that appeared like pastoral visions at the end of so many Bristolian hill streets. I doubted the capacity of London streets to deliver up these little gems to me.

Sure enough, Walthamstow’s pavements have more than their fair share of gnawed chicken bones, spittle deposits and mangled pigeons. I had to learn to find the beauty in order to feel as though I would survive the urban onslaught. Luckily I did, with a little help from my friends. I spent my first year here marvelling from the tops of buses at the secret sights to be had.

The colour of an autumn tree lit by the blue TV light of the window behind; a small glove dropped just at the intersection of paving slabs, like a sign pointing nowhere; the creeper that has edged across the concrete floor of an empty shop; the rhythm of a pumping air vent, as if from a secret rave under the pavement.

For a while it became overwhelming. There were beautiful things to look at everywhere and I regretted whizzing past them. I became fanatical about the tops of bus stops, where accidental and deliberate arrangements of objects might be seen only by those staring from the upper deck.

For a long time there was a whole salad of fruit on top of a shelter at Kings Cross, complete with pineapple, while suitcases and travellers wheeled past below in their thousands, oblivious. On the 56 bus route through Hackney you could see, atop every shelter going North, a ball of plasticine stuck with wooden skewers. Each one was slightly different, and it became a game to see how long the secret art route could remain intact.

At some point I forgot to keep looking like this, not just at bus shelters but at the million moments of beauty that are everywhere in London. I was so grateful to be jolted back into it, and seeing these things and smiling brings not just beauty, but a bit of free serenity. With enough practice, maybe being serene doesn’t have to be an effort.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Diana captures creativity

My sewing box captured the attention of two unlikely candidates at a party. A few hours later I had a beautiful necklace made from seaweed and miniature mussel shells.

We carried the apples back to London from my mother's tree, and pressed them on the roof terrace. It was hard work, and I won't bang on smugly about how good the cider was. It didn't last long.

My Uncle lives in Peel, on the Isle of Man, and plays the Manx version of the pipes. On the beach the sound still makes everyone wobble and lower their sunglasses.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The view from down here

I can see the whole world. Floating in the south pacific ocean are a tiger, a camel, a bell, an anxious looking ghost (are they soluble in salt water?) and, I’ve just realised rather appropriately, a seal, an octopus and two lobsters. The seal is made of wool, like the tiger and the camel, which explains why he is not smiling. There is also a pair of Dutch kissing children. Up close they are not so cute, having hollow eyes and magnets in their mouths.

This little crowd of objects are on a shelf in front of a huge national geographic map. It gives me something to stare at when I’m bored with the sky, and reminds me how tiny I am. Even tinier than the finger puppets, Mexican toys and cracker prizes on the shelf. I tried to get rid of them when I painted my room over the weekend, but I couldn’t. Small things inspire me.

Children are said to be fascinated by the miniature, with various theories put forward as to why. They live for a while in an over-sized world, so do other small things appeal because they too are dealing with proportions not meant for them?

Personally I don’t think small things enthral small people because they relate to them. There is something alien and a bit scary about seeing the world from the point of view of a being a few inches high. That in itself is compelling. It brings the possibility of seeing the world another way – with us as the giants, even children – and from that, the question of which of these views is the ‘right’ way. Hopefully the next step in this reasoning will be to realise that perhaps there isn’t a ‘right’ way, and ping! We can get our heads around the idea that what is normal for one person may be very different from what is normal for another.

I didn’t grow out of my obsession with the miniature, but then it was instilled in me quite thoroughly, partly by my parents – other grown-ups with a love of small and hidden worlds.

My father had kept a box from his childhood, resembling a treasure chest but about six inches long, which he called his Borrower box. Inside were a tiny pocketknife, an inch long but with a blade you could pull out just like his man-size Swiss army knives, a mouth organ with real reed chambers that a Borrower could have played, and other diminutive wonders. I coveted these objects but I didn’t assume they were meant for me, or other children. I could see how precious they were even to an adult.

I find myself doing the same, now I’m a grown-up of sorts. All these tiny things – inch-high zapatista dolls, a rubber duck the size of a sugar cube, a baby doll the size of a button – are not being saved in case I meet a small person who wants them. They let me dive into a world I love that feeds my imagination, and hold onto different ways of seeing that still excite me.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Overheard at Borough Market

-         Carrots seem so uptight.
-         Is that why they crunch?
-         Maybe, but cucumbers crunch, and they’re as laidback as they come.
-         Cool as.
-         Exactly. And what’s with courgettes? So grumpy.
-         Your vegetable perceptions seem very negative.
-         Not at all. Think of the butternut squash: generous, expansive, amiable. And the potato, which can make anyone feel at home without even trying.
-         Right.
-         I’ve never been able to make out avocados though. What’s your take?
-         How long do we have to play this game for?
-         Come on. You eat more salad than I do. I need your avocado assessment.
-         Can’t you just let them be enigmatic?
-         That’s it! Enigmatic. Charles, you’re good at this.
-         I didn’t mean to be.
-         Maybe you have a kind of vegetable character judgement synaesthesia going on. You didn’t even have to try. Do red onions next.
-         Synaesthesia?
-         Overlapping sense perceptions. You get coloured numbers, or scented emotions. Or in your case, vegetable personalities.
-         You started this, not me.
-         But it takes me ages, I have to really focus. Set aside my flavour preferences and so on.
-         Alright then. Test me.
-         Radish.
-         Cheeky.
-         Nice. Aubergine.
-         Misunderstood.
-         Cauliflower?
-         Conservative. Small ‘c’.
-         I never thought of political allegiances.
-         Probably a dead end. Doesn’t it put you off?
-         What?
-         I mean, do you still want to eat courgettes now you know that they’re grumpy? What if something really tasty, like a banana, turned out to be an amoral psycho killer?
-         You don’t absorb a vegetable’s attributes when you eat it. That’s a ridiculous thing to think, Charles. Especially once they’re cooked.
-         Yes, I am clearly the crazy one here. I do beg your pardon.
-         Anyway, bananas aren’t amoral. They’re actually quite conventional, but they don’t take themselves too seriously.
-         That’s alright then. Do you want some of mine?
-         No thanks. Are you really going to eat that?
-         Another sad loss to the organic community in London today, when a banana was skinned alive and devoured in a local market.
-         It’s not alive.
-         It’s not dead either. Yet. How long does it take your digestive enzymes to completely break down plant matter?
-         Stop it.
-         But I’m hungry.
-         It’s not even fully ripe. Give it a chance.
-         That’s how I like them. Young, fresh, firm of flesh.
-         You’re disgusting.
-         This one was going to go off the rails anyway. Not enough stability early on, left home too soon. The usual depressing story.
-         We could rehabilitate him. I’ve got some red apples in my fruit bowl that have a lot of love to give.
-         Don’t you know what happens to other fruit when you put a banana in with them? They ripen faster. You’d be shortening the lives of those apples. They’d be facing wrinkles, pulpy bodies, and an early death.
-         So it’s them or the banana? This is terrible.
-         Think of me as your apple-preserver.
-         Okay. But don’t make me watch.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Worlds of plenty, worlds of choice

I spent six months working at Borough Market, amongst mountain ranges of vegetables. All those piles of nature’s bounty were impressive, regardless of the quality. Forty pumpkins are somehow more appealing than one lonely one, even if those at the bottom of the pile are riddled with rat holes.

Maybe it’s an evolutionary response: plenty should be pleasing for obvious reasons. This isn’t restricted to fresh produce. We like burgeoning shelves in a supermarket much better than scantily-stocked ones. A single jar of marmalade looks miserable, and we wonder, why is just that one left?

But the gratifying effect of quantity twists when you also turn up the variety. Too much choice causes a kind of cognitive panic, and we become stymied. How do we pick the best out of nineteen different types of jam? Are there differences between twelve brands of sliced white that we should be considering before we buy?

Choice has become a hot topic in popular philosophy, migrating into the mainstream from the arid academic field of rational choice theory. It’s a sign of the times; never before have consumers faced such baffling variety.

Rational choice theory is about weighing up actions and their outcomes to figure out which choice is the best for an individual. Negative outcomes are counted too: the gateau may afford a lot more pleasure than the rye crackers, but this might be negated by the relative weight gain for someone on a diet.

With choices, then, there are costs as well as benefits to be considered. One small cost is the computational energy involved in figuring out which sandwich will make the best lunch today. Faced with a huge amount of choice, this computational cost increases, until at some point it seems unmanageable. Factor in the time spent too, especially now that time is so precious to so many of us, and it is no wonder that a wall of wondrously varied jars of jam can become somewhat distressing.

Back in my PhD days when I thought about and discussed this subject a lot, a colleague who was such a fiend for rational choice that he could appear scarily robotic admitted leaving restaurants when faced with excessively long menus. He couldn’t bring himself to just pick at random, but the rational approach become unwieldy for a human brain.

In these situations, people not infected with rational choice theory turn to heuristics, or in simpler terms, short-cuts. One common short-cut is to refer to an expert, or failing that, a trusted source. Even someone who has a little more experience than us can become the deciding factor in a major decision. We buy cars, holidays, even properties on the basis of one friend’s recommendation.

Another key short-cut is to fall back on salience. We go for a brand we know, or a name that is simply more familiar than the rest. Hence advertising, even for products or services we rarely use, is worthwhile. I’ve never owned a car, but when the time comes and I have to buy insurance, that horrible nodding dog will lurch from the back of my mind and Churchill will have gained a foothold, however good or bad their deals turn out to be.

My preferred solution to all this is time-costly but high on satisfaction. Faced with a mountain of average oranges on one side and twenty-three types of marmalade on the other, I will retreat to the pound-a-bowl fruit seller at Walthamstow market and make the marmalade myself.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Diana goes gothic

This is Abney Cemetery in Stoke Newington, North London. It is chaotic and crumbling in the best possible way, though some of the living inhabitants are more creepy than the ghosts. Diana made it super-gothic in the low light of a cloudy day.

I think this was three separate exposures, at Pere Lachaise in Paris. It doesn't work that well; there's a better one here. It was fun trying to work out which images would overlay well and I'm still learning.

Near Oscar Wilde's lipstick-smattered grave at Pere Lachaise lies Victor Noir, his groin rubbed to a gleam by tourists. I left him his dignity and missed that bit out... I walked round and round him, trying to find an angle that would make a good image, and then clearly gave up.

Nest stop Walthamstow cemetery, hopefully in this winter's snow.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Cockles bubbling in the sand

This is a line from Under Milk Wood, Richard Burton’s recording of which had me giggling in the street on the way to work the other day. The phrase jumped out at me: the sound of those cockles so quietly plut-plutting as the town wakes up, the sense of life going on while nobody looks.

It reminded me of a moment, fifteen years ago, lying uncomfortably on a pebble beach with a collection of family and friends. We were speculating about the limpets on the rocks. Did they keep to a favourite patch, get to know their neighbours? Did they ever get the urge to go wandering?

“Imagine,” my mother said, “Being a limpet with a low boredom threshold.”

This set off a bout of collective laughter as we took turns blurting out a limpet’s stream of consciousness.

It may just be me, but there was something so perfectly funny about this notion that it stuck with me, and still pops into my mind regularly. Perhaps it is the element of tragedy, which often underpins good comedy. The limpet wouldn’t be laughing with us; a mollusc with a sense of humour is nothing like as funny anyway.
Remembering this moment yet again one day, I tried to replicate the pattern of creature + unfortunate character trait/affliction. A list formed and then grew. A cicada with tinnitus; a ladybird who despises kitsch; a self-conscious glow-worm; a leech who cannot stand the sight of blood; a woodpecker with a headache; a snake with a lisp. It went on.

At the time I was writing funny stories for children, often in verse. I planned a series of unfortunate creature poems, but only wrote two in the end, discouraged by the unsellable nature of poetry collections by unknown authors. One of these concerned a centipede with a penchant for high heels, the other a wasp who meets his demise while trying to tell jokes to unimpressed picnickers.

Again, it may just be me, but there is something intriguing, compelling, about sea creatures that live in shells. From the outside they seem as lifeless as stones, yet hold on so tight when we touch that a human hand alone cannot remove them. They open up secretly, hidden beneath the surface, drinking their salty soup, and then disguise themselves as stones again when the tide leaves them.

Some produce pearls, which even once we know how is magical – even more so when we think that something so prized for its beauty is the outcome of irritation. The insides of their homes can be the sweetest pinks and iridescent mauves, but do they ever notice? Are those spiral shell forms another irritant to them? How does it feel to be curled tight inside one?

Maybe I will restart that series of poems by going back to the poor frustrated limpet my mother imagined. I will have to set aside the memory of cooking up a bag of them prised from the rocks in Clevedon. Or maybe that’s exactly the adventure that a bored limpet needs…

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Bad writing - from Cherry to Cherie

Cherry's cheeks were blushing as red as red cherries. Her new GP, Doctor Stud, was the stud of her wildest dreams and her naughtiest fantasies. His jet black hair curled in curls around his tanned brown face. His eyes pierced hers like syringe needles.
"Cherry Loveless? Lovely to meet you," he rasped in a husky voice.
Cherry felt her cheeks get even redder, as red as strawberries now. She was confused by her one thought. This stud is my doctor: my Doctor Stud.
"Cherry, can I ask you something?" Doctor Stud growled in a hoarse voice.
Cherry nodded, and her raven black hair fell around her cherry red cheeks like ravens falling around cherries.

At one of my writers’ group meetings, we decided to spend fifteen minutes trying to produce a piece of really bad writing. It became almost impossible to read out the resulting pieces in the pub later because we were all laughing so hard. But intentionally bad writing is funny in a different way from accidentally bad writing. While I can’t speak for my fellow writers, I have certainly produced bad writing before whilst aiming for something good. Intentionally bad writing can, paradoxically, be done very well or be unsuccessful in its own way.

Many of our pieces were spoofs of genres, and a spoof can fail if it doesn’t tap into the right characteristics. We were in a privileged position as listeners because we knew the intention of every writer in that moment was to write badly (well). But if a piece is not bad enough, it can be excruciating, as the reader wonders whether it is parody or just poor execution with serious intent.

Some of us tried to write badly by reversing some of the supposed rules of good writing. Avoid adverbs, for example. Don’t repeat yourself, and avoid cliché. I thought about these rules of thumb while I wrote about Cherry Loveless, as well as choosing inappropriate and unimaginative similes.

It was surprisingly challenging to do this, and that is not a veiled claim that my creative writing is otherwise flawless. However, I think writing deliberately badly without recourse to parody would be even more difficult. Not that there is any point in trying; there is enough bad writing in the world already.

There are as many ways for a piece of writing to be bad as there are for it to be good. Whether a reader finds a particular book to be good or bad overall depends on their tastes, or areas of sensitivity. I am a style snob, and if I find the mode of expression dreary, or clichéd, or poor in one of a whole host of ways, I can’t get past this to enjoy a story, however good it may be. I almost envy people who are oblivious to style, and can engage with a page-turning plot as if watching a film.

Plenty more people are turned off by the opposite balance in a book that is all style, no car-chase. Despite my facetiouness, I do of course admit that bad writing can be stylistically exemplary, but turn readers off with its content.

The third – and probably worst – kind of bad writing must be that in which the style and the content symbiotically work together to make the reader feel revulsion towards both. The best example of this I can think of is the excerpt from Tony Blair’s memoir that was nominated for the Bad Sex Award in the Literary Review. I will leave you with it, lest I break the spell:

"That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct."

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Stag-hunting for commuters

I spotted an article the other day suggesting that commuters needed to learn how to board trains in a fashion that caused least delays, and that this in itself would ease some passenger pain.

Nobody needs to be taught how to wait on a platform in such a way as to allow the flow of disembarking people; basic common sense tells us this. What has broken down in these situations that ruins so many people’s mornings is coordination (with one another, not of our limbs), and cooperation.

Behaviour driven by the ‘every man for himself’ motto only has to be exhibited by a few people, and the cooperative crowd breaks down. I am using ‘cooperative’ here in a philosophical sense as well as a social one. Human beings live in societies, and societies only work if their members act in ways that benefit them as one of a group.

Brian Skyrms explores one form of this kind of cooperation in his book The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure. Briefly, the hunters in a group can choose between hunting a stag together or hunting hares alone. An individual cannot catch a stag by himself, but if enough hunters join in, there will be a lot more meat to go around if they are successful. The same individual might manage to catch a hare on his own, but there are two outcomes: firstly there will be less meat, and secondly he reduces the chances of success for the smaller stag-hunting group. If enough individuals decide to go hare hunting, there won’t even be a stag hunting group, and overall each individual with a hare is less well off.

I’m writing this from a decade-old memory, but that is the gist. We can apply it to the commuters. A few people decide to go their own way, and the whole group is less well off as a result. That is, if a critical mass decide not to cooperate, refusing to standing back from train doors, then cooperation becomes not only pointless but damaging for the rest of us. Like two foolhardy stag hunters setting out without their companions, if two people decide to stand back and allow others to pass them, they’ll never make it onto the train. They’ve ended up with no meat at all because some people went hare-hunting.

I don’t think presenting my fellow travellers with a précis of Skyrms’ book is going to improve my mornings. But neither will pointing out to people, as the article attempted to do, that if we all stood back everyone would have a better time. They already know this, at some level. They are already cooperative beings in as much as we live in this society; coordination and cooperation are built into their ways of thinking without them needing to know it. Instead they exercise their individual choice over how to act, and the self-interested decision-making of a few leaves everybody worse off.

That said, even more people would be worse off if all these individuals chose to drive to work rather than fight their way on and off a train. I will try to remember this the next time I am bundled away from the carriage by a series of environmentally-considerate elbows: we are actually coordinating on a higher level to the benefit of the planet.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Painted Ladies

In the area of East London where I live, posters in shop windows or bus shelters are sometimes daubed with paint. This occurs when the advertisement reveals rather more of a woman’s person than is deemed appropriate by the painter. Not so long ago the ‘be stupid’ Diesel ads, featuring a woman flashing her breasts, back to the camera, received this treatment. I was full of glee, since I found this particular campaign offensive on so many levels anyway.

There is a new development in this modesty-imposition: a graffiti artist is painting hijabs over similarly under-dressed female forms. Again, I found this funny and quite clever, and not unreasonable given that ad placement in London is often completely insensitive to the communities that live in certain areas.

Then an unpleasant implication occurred to me. In London, so many people with different values and cultural or religious norms live alongside one another, mostly apparently tolerant of different ways of life. But if those adverts offend some people around me so much that they are prepared to go painting in the middle of the night, are the same people also offended by my uncovered head? What about bare shoulders and legs in the summer? It’s possible, even likely.

Beyond that, there are rules of behaviour in various cultural groups that are totally opaque to me. Might some people be offended by my lack of acknowledgement when we pass on the street, or would eye contact be seen as brazen? Should I be greeting the permanent group of men outside the coffee shop beneath my flat with ‘salam alaikum’ when I pass them each day, or would I be crossing a whole set of boundaries in doing so?

I feel I ought to know the answer to this, having passed them almost daily for four years. It is a lack in me that I still puzzle over this.

Going over this ground yet again, a friend advised, “Just impose your style.” On the one hand it grates with me that I don’t do this. Isn’t it the case that in London, of all cities, anything goes?

On the other hand there is a balance to strike, at least for a person who tries to be generally polite. I don’t want to offend anyone when it costs me nothing to avoid doing this.

Sometimes, though, I think there might be a small cost in the sacrifice of some self-expression, or whatever it is I would somehow gain by ‘imposing my style.’ But given that I can quantify neither this abstract loss nor the potential good or harm done by conforming to or defying the expectations to others, I can’t make a well-informed choice.

Then I thought, perhaps I dress conservatively on my local shopping trips because I have absorbed some of the values that are around me, specifically about how women ought to dress and behave, without either understanding them or agreeing with them.

This theory is based on assumptions about other people, but I feel I can’t just set these norms aside, precisely because I don’t have sufficient insight into their provenance. If I did understand what drives them, I might even think they are justified. In the meantime I respond to them just in case they are justified, not really knowing. I may be sacrificing self-expression for nothing.

While I ponder the assumptions that modify my own behaviour, I’ll still be smiling again next time a mid-riff is white-washed in Walthamstow. I’m glad to see people expressing their rejection of these images, and after all, the midnight painters are unwittingly doing Western atheist women like me a service by defacing images we find offensive for a completely different set of reasons.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Words set to music

A polar bear in a library sounds like a bad idea. Even when the Polar Bear in question is a collection of astounding jazz musicians, Westminster reference library was the ideal habitat for neither performers nor audience. On Saturday night I crammed into the chair-free space and sat on the carpet as if for story time, and was about ready to leave after twenty minutes of having my knees kicked in the stampede for the punch-free punch.

I ended up halfway up a staircase, behind a pillar, but the music was brilliant enough to turn even the purest blue funk to fuzzy pink.

I realised as I scribbled notes in the dark that trying to describe music in words is futile. The path has so many steps – mind #1 --> body + instrument --> sound --> perception --> mind #2 --> words --> mind #3 being the condensed version – and we all know how utterly useless a review of an unheard musician or band is for gauging whether we will like what we eventually hear.

When I tried to think of metaphors to express something about the music, everything that popped into my head was a kind culture section cliché. Several times I thought of ‘shimmering’, a word beloved of music reviewers, but like all the others it is useless until you are actually listening and can say “Ah, yes! I see what she means.”

Still, there was much to remark on, so remark I will, and you can imagine any music you like while you read.

Polar Bear is led by Seb Rochford, a drummer of genius whose hair has to be seen to be believed. After a piece where the starring instrument was a green balloon played by Leafcutter John, childlike already in his red t-shirt, Seb told us it was a love song called Tom Loves Alison Loves Tom. The love, he said as he pointed into the audience, “is between that person there and that person there. I could feel the love going between them during the song.”

Dispensing with the balloon squeals, which had blended so naturally with saxophone sound that I wondered why nobody had done it before, Leafcutter John contributed to the rest of the set via his laptop. He accessorised with what looked like a white TV remote, which he waved through the air. At first I thought this arm-swinging was just for the hell of it; then I realised the gadget and laptop were acting like a kind of virtual theremin, and movements made sounds. I can’t begin to understand how this works (something like a Wii, perhaps?) but the synthesised sounds had a kind of soothing effect, rendering the looser jazz over the top somehow more friendly.

This friendliness was epitomised in a long solo on double bass. I couldn’t see Tom Herbert behind his instrument thanks to the aforementioned pillar, so my mind was free to wander as I listened. The ponderous extended cadenza made me think, in the best possible way, of Winnie the Pooh humming while searching for a little something in the bottom of a honey jar.

There were plenty of other surprising moments that made a beautiful kind of sense. One such was like listening to a space-cricket in a thunderstorm (laptop and drums respectively); another was one of those profoundly satisfying sensations when time signatures appear to diverge and then meet again, giving the same sense of resolution we experience when a chord settles at its root.

A new song called Peepers (also the name of their new album) turned out to be inspired by trips to Hackney Tesco, and the particularly cheeky eyes Seb encountered at a checkout. Given the melodious, happy nature of this piece, this was probably the most surprising revelation of the whole night.

Laughter subsided and the audience grew self-consciously quiet as Seb reminded us how important these moments are in daily life, when we engage with a stranger and something unexpectedly lovely occurs. I felt suddenly guilty for the misanthropy that had dogged me from leaving my flat right through to the first notes of their set. I might have missed the opportunity for one of these moments of joy while I glowered in the shadows. Still, even my staircase-induced back-ache did not detract from the joy I felt from the music alone, and I left feeling more kindly-disposed towards the Saturday night crowds of Piccadilly.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

300 words, 30 minutes, 3 stories

The gauntlets have been laid down in a complex interweaving pattern by the members of my writers’ group. We have each supplied three titles or ideas for stories to another member, designed to get them writing outside of their comfort zone. The resulting pieces of about 2000 words will combine to make this year’s anthology.

I have to choose one of the three given to me, but to get some ideas flowing I decided to write a story for each idea of 100 words or less, allowing ten minutes per story.

It was interesting to find out what a fellow writer thought would be difficult territory for me. The exercise hasn’t helped me choose my anthology story as I don’t really like any of them. On the other hand, maybe it cleared some bad ideas out of my system and I’ll end up with a better piece. Here’s hoping.

1. Commuting

The boy had orange hair and a respectable book. Our distorted faces in the glass were angels at his shoulders.

When he lifted his head, the grin was directed at neither one of us.

“Pick me!” I thought.

“Pick me!” she said. She was always the bolder.

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

I stole her phone and met him at the bookshop.

“I thought you liked sci-fi?” he frowned in the poetry aisle.

“That’s my sister,” I said, back on the tube. We watched my stretching reflection.

“Tell her I’ve changed my mind. Do you mind if I read?”

2. The Adventures of a Victorian Lady Traveller

Amelia sponged her face carefully. Her complexion always suffered, but it was necessary, she told herself. The air in the year 2000 may be disagreeable, but manners were worse. Her decorum missions would be the salvation of future Londoners. She would win the charity cup.

Next morning, Amelia’s worst fears were realised: a blemish – a detestable pimple – on her cheek.

She wept over tea.

At luncheon, Edmund glanced at her, then turned towards Phyllis’ flawless charms. Amelia’s heart froze, and cracked.

Arriving in 1981, Amelia locked the machine and watched the ripples under Waterloo Bridge as the key sank forever.

3. A middle-aged woman arrives home after a big night out

No really, I can do it. Oopsy-daisy, I mean damn, yes I think it went in the flowerbed.
Thank you.
No really, I’ll be fine. Really. Well, mind your hair on the door frame. How does it stay up, anyway? No, the mohican! I meant your… Don’t go in there. This way. I’ll find the whisky.

Oh God. I’ll just lean here for a minute and gather myself. Things To Do Before You’re Fifty. The garden. The Caribbean. Not this.
Just a minute! Coming!
I’ll just say I’m tired.
I am. Really, really tired.