It’s Difficult…

Bits of poems keep coming to me at the moment, but only in the form of phrases or the odd line. And nothing that relates to other poems I might be working on. Then when I attempt to tease them out further, the muse just disappears.

I think I’ve finished with A Good Place (the novel I’ve been working on for the last four years). That’s ‘finished with’ as opposed to ‘finished’. It’s just not a story I feel compelled to tell and on the basis of if you have nothing to say, then say nothing, I see no point in continuing with it for now. Anything I do feel I want to say at present can probably best be said in the form of poetry.

Even if I’m having trouble writing them at the moment.

There is a popular post that crops up on social media, invariably a variation on a photograph of a log cabin somewhere in a wilderness, with a caption along the lines of No TV, no internet, but plenty of books and all the food and drink you need. Could you live here for a month for $10,000? to which most people seem to reply Definitely! or Bring it on! or somesuch.

Leaving aside the interesting point that so many people say they would welcome that situation, it is certainly something that speaks strongly to me. Well, more than ‘speaks strongly’ – it jumps up and down waving its arms in the air and shouting ‘Oi! Look at me! Over here!’ Nothing seems to hold my interest at the present; I just feel I want to disappear into the wilderness and walk and walk and walk.

Maybe I’ll come across my muse there.

It’s the incessant noise as much as anything. Traffic. Aircraft. People talking or shouting into mobile phones in the quiet of the woods. Chainsaws, drills, and hammering. Unless you’re in the middle of Dartmoor or the Cairngorms, there’s no escape. And no guarantee of it even there.

That Project – Into March, Now

February’s project was to finish the final draft of A Good Place. As you may have gathered from my last update post, this wasn’t going too well. By the end of the month, though, I had virtually achieved my aim. I’d chucked out some stuff that wasn’t working, rehashed what was left, and inserted a couple of ideas. It works, but I feel somewhat flat. As I said in that earlier post, it’s just not a story I feel particularly strongly about. If I hadn’t invested so much time in it by now, I’d just scrap it and be done with.

Actually, it’s possible I will do that eventually. I’ve put it aside and I don’t intend to look at it again for ages. Possibly not until next year. But March, I said, would be a month of painting and drawing. So what have I been doing? I’ve been writing poems.

Yes, writing poems. But before you all start jeering at me, hear me out. Our spare room is full of books and papers and God only knows what else. Bags and boxes of stuff that need sorting. To get it into some sort of order we need to get a new, large, set of shelves. But to make the most of the space we also needed to get rid of an old computer desk and a cupboard. That we’ve done, but that involved emptying said desk and cupboard, so even more stuff is piled on the floor and any other available surface.

So where on earth can you paint or draw?

Precisely! You see the problem! So, for the time being, change of plan. This month I’m fiddling around with some poems instead – you may have seen one effort on here last post – and leaving the painting for now.

Next month, then?

Um…not necessarily. I do have other plans for April. I’ll let you know what they are later.

A Warning To Other Writers

Oh, this sodding book.

I…no, first, a little bit of context.

Those of us who call ourselves creatives, why do we create? Why do we have this need to make things? I know the usual answer is we write / paint / carve / whatever it is we do, because we have to, because there is something inside of us that needs to find an outlet. But what is that something? In my case, as well as a storyline it is frequently a place where I have spent some enjoyable time. It provides me with a comfortable setting in which to tell a story.

Most of what I do, certainly the work I feel is my best, my most successful (in the sense of expressing what I want to express), falls into that category. My long poem The Night Bus, for example, was the result of a thirty year (admittedly intermittent) search for a way to record my experience of a long bus ride across Northern India into Nepal. I attempted prose and paintings without success, although through this I did develop a style of painting I went on to successfully use on many Indian paintings, and had long given up on the project when chance showed me a way into the poem. The poem I completed succeeds in conjuring up (for me) the impressions and feelings I had on that journey; I can relive the journey again by re-reading the poem. Whether it conveys anything of that to other readers, I naturally cannot know.

And my stories, too. I look through Making Friends With The Crocodile, and I am in rural Northern India again. I re-read The Last Viking and can easily feel myself on an island off the west coast of Scotland. This is not to imply any intrinsic merit to my writing, other than its ability to transport myself, at least, into the setting I am attempting to describe.

These stories are a composite of three basics: a setting, as mentioned already, a storyline – and again this needs to be something important to me, or I find it pretty well impossible to put my heart into it, and strong, convincing, characters.

It is useful, then, to know where lots of my writing comes from, and what shapes it, what drives it. I have long suspected that this is frequently nostalgia and, recognising that, have wondered whether this might be a bad thing. Nostalgia, after all, has a rather bad press…does it just mean I am living in the past because I am viewing it through rose-tinted spectacles? As a way of not addressing issues of today I should be tackling?

This yearning for nostalgia, though, is a desire for something we see as better than what we have now. To write passionately about something it needs to be something I feel strongly about. Obviously this can also be something we find frightening or abhorrent – dystopian warnings about the future or anger about injustices, for example – but even in those cases the familiar provides a cornerstone of safety, even if only by way of comparison.

This is also true when I paint. I am not someone who can paint to order – if I’m not inspired, it does not work. A number of difficult commissions have proved that point to me. I paint what I like, what moves me. After all, whatever I am creating, it should be foremost for myself.

That book, then…

I began writing it about five years ago for all the wrong reasons. I had self-published Making Friends With The Crocodile and decided my next story should also be set in India, and as a contrast decided to write about British ex-pats living in a hill station in the foothills of the Himalaya. I wanted to write about India again. The trouble was, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I had no stories that might slot into that setting I felt in any way driven to write; it just seemed to feel appropriate at the time. I was pleased by the reception the first book had and felt I ‘should’ write this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

I spent time putting together a plot, with which I was never wholly satisfied, and began writing. Really, I should have seen the obvious at that point and bailed out. But I carried on, and twice reached a point where I thought I had the final draft.

My beta reader then proceeded to point out all the very glaring faults.

So twice I ripped out a third of it and chucked it away, then re-plotted the second half of the book and got stuck into the re-write. I’m sure you can see part of the problem at this point – I wanted to hang onto as much of the story as I could, instead of just starting completely afresh. And now here I am trying to finish the final draft for the third time, as my February project for this year. And it’s just not working for me. But at this point, after well over a hundred and fifty thousand words (half of which I’ve discarded) I just feel I’ve invested too much time and effort in it to abandon it now. Somehow, it has to get finished. I do have an idea for a couple of quite drastic changes which I’ll try this week, but unless I feel I’m making some real progress I’ll then happily put it aside for a while and concentrate on next month’s project: painting and drawing.

And, to be honest, if it eventually ended up as a story of less than ten thousand words, and if I felt satisfied with it, then I’d take that as a result, now.

And the moral of all this? I’m sure there was a point after a couple of months when I knew I shouldn’t have been writing this book. I should have binned it there and then and saved myself a lot of fruitless trouble, but stubbornly ignored the warning signs.

January. A New Year, a New Project. Well…projects…

Well, here we are again. A New Year. At least we’ve had a few sunny days, recently:

On Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, Sussex.

Heading up on to the South Downs from Clayton, Sussex.

‘Jill’ windmill, near Clayton, South Downs.

‘Jack’ windmill – no longer working, and now a private dwelling.

And another shot of ‘Jill’ – restored and now working

I don’t miss 2021 at all, although I’m sure I’m not alone in that. But I got off much easier than many people, of course. I’m still here, for a start. But I had a few health issues that I’m now stuck with, and these have slowed me down a bit and have forced me to alter my lifestyle in small (but annoying) ways. And I feel old. I am old. If you’re under twenty one, then I’m incredibly old!

And for various reasons I had a very unproductive year in that I found writing really difficult and just couldn’t get my head around any art. Although I don’t make New Year Resolutions as such, I’m tackling the uninspired non-productivity by setting myself, well, not exactly goals, but projects for each month of the year.

I have been researching my family tree, and instead of nice neat charts and tables, I have reams of scrap paper with partly legible duplicated notes (and a few charts and tables). For January, then, I am sorting all of those out and making those nice neat charts and tables, and trying to fill in some of the many gaps I’m discovering as I do so. It’s only halfway through the month and it’s going well, so that’s a success so far. But the rest of the year will comprise creative projects. For the next one – February – I intend to fill all the gaps left in my work in progress, A Good Place (the novel I’ve been working on for four or five years). I won’t get around to editing it, but I intend to complete what I am determined will be the final draft.

And then for March, I shall…well, I’ll tell you that in February.

So Little Time, So Much To Do

The last week or so seems to have been ridiculously busy. All my own fault, of course. I’ve become exceptionally good at realising I’m doing rather a lot…and then starting a new project to add to it.

I’m making good progress on my current work in progress, A Good Place. Check.

Totally irrelevant photo, but one of my favourite shots. Small boy carrying dead sharks on a donkey. As you do.

Now that I have unpublished both of my books from Amazon, I have submitted Making Friends with the Crocodile to a publisher who will accept work that has been previously self-published and am waiting on a yes or no from them. Check.

I have edited two of the poems I wrote last month during my Poem-a-day-for-a-week experiment, and my talented friend Mark Prestage is including them in a pamphlet / zine / chapbook /call it what you will with some of his superb linocuts and photos. More on that when it’s out.

And while I’m thinking about that, perhaps I should have a go at another Poem-a-day-for-a-week soon, it worked quite well, really.

What I haven’t yet done is put my short stories and poem book, The Night Bus, up on a new platform. This will probably be Lulu, and I really ought to do that soon.

I haven’t been very good at visiting blogs recently, as you might have noticed. I need to do a bit more of that.

I was going to start a painting, which I haven’t managed to do yet. Really, I do sometimes set myself too much to do.

So, a new project? Really? Well, yes, actually. Forty years or so ago my father began a family tree, which I occasionally helped him with. It has sat in a cupboard since he died thirty years ago. And now I’ve had the urge to take it up and do some work on it, partly because I’m aware that there is a whole branch of my family which has died out, and only myself and one cousin would still remember any of them. And, we’re not getting any younger, you know. So I’ve begun researching that.

And I wonder where the time goes.

Sunday Supplement – 4

I’ve been playing this album for much of the last week. the first I had heard of Sharron Kraus was on Chanctonbury Ring, the album she worked on with Justin Hopper, based on Justin’s book The Old Weird Albion. Joy’s Reflection is Sorrow is filled with beautiful haunting songs in the folk tradition, with more than a touch of otherworldliness about them.

My world is full of paths that are too well trodden at the moment. I suppose everyone’s is, really. All the paths nearby on the common and through the woods are overflowing with dog walkers and families out for exercise and relaxation, and without going further afield it is difficult to find anywhere to walk in solitude. So a longer walk is demanded this week, out to fields and woods and rivers where I know I shall meet hardly a soul.

I think I shall resist posting progress reports on my writing in future, since I jump from project to project and no sooner do I say I’m doing a final edit of x, than I am working on y and have shelved x for the foreseeable future. I have, for example, found great difficulty in finishing A Good Place, revising the plot and the ending for the third time now…

It’s downright embarrassing, really.

I’m finding writing very difficult at present, though, which is one reason I’m not posting on here very often. Like everyone else, I just need to hang in there.

And I’m reading An Indifference of Birds by Robert Smyth.

This is another book about birds, but in this case it looks at how birds see us and how we affect them. And by extension, it looks at how we affect the whole of the natural world, and the enormous damage we are doing to it. But if that sounds horribly gloomy, the book is a delight to read – beautifully written, and filled with observation and information. Do buy it.

And look after yourselves.

Sunday Supplement – 2

Brains are funny things. At least, mine certainly is. Asked to provide a short bio for someone (Laura, the editor of Braided Way, who has asked to reblog my post Winter – 3), I seem to freeze up in terror. It feels a little like trying to promote my books or my paintings – this ‘blowing my own trumpet’ doesn’t come easily to me. I feel reticent and more than a little embarrassed. I just find it hard to write about myself, unless disguising myself as a character in a story. In the end, I forced myself to make a list of bullet points of things I thought should go in, and then sort of joined up the dots. It still makes me feel awkward, though. Am I the only one who feels like this? Some people certainly seem particularly good at it, whereas I always feel anything like that I have to write like this seems trite and inadequate, yet also pompous.

My talented friend Mark Prestage who made the superb prints for my poem Viking, which we published as a zine (I still prefer the word pamphlet), also produces prints to grace the covers of cds for the band Yellow6. The latest one, Days is pictured below.

Yellow6 is described as ‘…the solo project of British guitarist Jon Attwood. Yellow6 has at times been described as post-rock, minimalist, electronica, ambient… the reality is that Yellow6 has some similarity with each of those genres but is not so easily definable, using aspects of drone, repetition, melody, harmony, noise and silence to create absorbing soundscapes to drift off into.’ Mark also took the photos gracing the insert of the CD, such as this one:

I got a copy of it last week and have been listening to it constantly.

I finished reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk – which I’m so glad I returned to, with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion – and then went for something completely different. I’m now reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I bought this about a year ago, and hadn’t got around to reading it, partly wondering whether it had been over-hyped. After all, surely a whole book talking about someone training a goshawk would be somewhat boring, right?

Wrong. Totally wrong. In the words of the cliche, I could not put it down. The goshawk is a real character, who looms out of the book larger than life (see the cover!) dominating Helen’s life in the same way she dominates the picture.

n.b. Reminder to self. ‘Arty’ photographs are all very well, but several of them all together can look pretty naff…

And how is my writing going? I’m so glad you asked. Plugging away at A Good Place, still. And it probably will not surprise anybody one jot to hear I’ve decided to weave a couple of extra strands into the plot, which will naturally involve quite a bit of extra writing.

You might be forgiven for thinking I never want to finish the dratted thing…

Finally, I put up the last part of ‘Winter’ last week, and for my next post I think I should put up something a little, well, warmer and more cheerful! So probably a re-post of one of my Indian posts, one from a few years back that my follower may not have already seen. And perhaps I’ll tweak it a little.

Probably.

Sunday Supplement – 1

This arrived at the beginning of the week: the new CD from Belbury Poly on Ghost Box Records. I listened to the podcast of Uncanny Landscapes #5 interviewing Jim Jupp (The Belbury Poly) back in September, and had been meaning to buy this since then. Inspired by British myth and legend, The Gone Away is essentially ambient electronic music. One review has it: …this haunting, immersive album that it feels like a nod to Ghost Box’s roots: where Jupp, working alone this time, is a channel for ancient, rustic strangeness, passed through the filter of some long-forgotten children’s TV series. I think it’s brilliant, and I’ve been listening to it for much of the week.

I finished re-reading Beowulf, the version translated by Seamus Heaney who is a poet I much admire. Most people know the story, or at least know that Beowulf is a great warrior who fights and kills the monster Grendel in what we think of as Anglo-Saxon times, although the story is somewhat more complex than that. I have read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry over the years, and I’ve frequently been disappointed by it. There is very little of it surviving – if it was ever written down at all, it has been largely lost – and what there is dates from the end of that period, when the Saxons had been converted to Christianity. This means it is frequently a strange and jarring combination of bloodthirsty adventure and po-faced sermonising. Fortunately, Beowulf largely escapes the latter, and Seamus Heaney’s translation is both beautiful and dark.

And, by strange coincidence, on my previous post (Winter – 3) Greg posted a comment mentioning Beowulf, although he could not know I had finished reading it the previous day.

But now I’m reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the second time I’ve read it, and the first time I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but knew I needed to immerse myself in it more slowly. This time around, I began it in the spring and only got halfway through, for some reason really struggling with it. But I’ve picked it up again and now I’m finding it much easier going. Set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century, it is a murder mystery, love story and discussion on the power of art, with religion and intrigue chucked in for good measure.

It’s been a bit of a grey week, weather-wise, although we’ve had the odd spell of sunny weather. Yesterday we had a dodging-the-showers walk over the nearby common, and spent a while mulling over the age of this oak. I reckoned it might be three hundred to three hundred and fifty years old, while Sabina plumped for five hundred.

In the summer, I measured its girth at head height, and made it approximately six metres. The various ‘ready reckoners’ one comes across would suggest from this the age is around four hundred years, making allowances for factors such as the climate around here and its position in relation to the rest of the geography of the area, but this tree seems in unusually good condition for one that age. It’s possible, of course. Whatever age it is, though, it’s a mighty bugger.

My creative writing this week, what there was of it, was all revision of A Good Place. I’m getting there slowly, even if it does seem to be taking an age. How do some writers manage to dash off a couple of books a year, for heaven’s sake? Do they not have lives?

And my next post? My final post on winter. We’re approaching Christmas, are we not? So a little something seasonal. In a sort of Neolithic way…

At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

It’s Been A While

A few weeks, anyway. Over the years, most of you have probably got used to me just disappearing every now and again. There comes a point where everything seems to get too much for me and even reading and commenting on posts becomes too difficult and challenging. I ignore social media except to check occasionally to see if I have any notifications, and whether these can just be ignored. As for writing a blog post, my mind just goes blank.

No snidey comments, please…

But I have been reading – reading voraciously, book after book, for a week or two. Comfort reading, for the most part. Books I know I enjoy and which are not too demanding of the reader. In between times I have made good progress with my novel A Good Place, so I’ve not just been feeling sorry for myself, staring morosely into space, and eating too much.

I’ve done that a bit, though.

I’ve even managed, finally, to take my first visit to the South Downs since the pandemic began. I took a bus down to the East Sussex town of Lewes, and from there spent a few hours walking a big loop up onto the Downs, along the top for a few miles, then back to Lewes. It felt as good as a holiday.

P1060476 (2)

I’ve written a couple of new blog posts, too, at long last. Well, it’s a bit of a cheat, really – they’re actually a couple of extracts from a travel essay I’ve been writing. I’ll put the first one up in a day or two. But I still feel I need a lot of space to switch off and think, so I apologise now if I don’t do a great deal of visiting other blogs.

If I do visit, of course, I’ll be socially distanced and masked up, so you might not even notice me there.