Tag Archives: poetry

I’m off to the Hay Festival…

2013-portal-ticketsonsale

So, yes, this is about as middle-aged and middle-class as my life has now become. In the past, it was all about music festivals; sleeping in a muddy field in a cheap tent; spending 3 days drunk or stoned or both; jumping up and down with 30,000 other people to loud music; getting no sleep.

But now, I’m about to head off to a literature festival. And you know what? It’s brilliant and I’m not ashamed at all… there’s the rest of the summer for teenage fun… for now I’m hanging with the grown-ups. I’ve been to the Hay Festival before and it’s awesome. I think it’s probably the premier literary festival in the world, and set in the quintessential pretty british village too.

My 4 days will include talks and readings by John McCarthy (who was held hostage in Lebanon for 5 years), Carl Bernstein (Mr Watergate), Hans Blix (Mr weapons of mass destruction), and Stella Rimington (the former Head of MI5). And I haven’t even mentioned the fiction writers.

So, I’m off to sip tea and wine. See you on the other side…

Abstract rant (another excerpt from my first draft)

This makes little sense out of context. However, it makes only a little more sense in context…

Words,
Can’t find,
When it’s correct.

Murmur,
Cry,
Windows,
Over me,
Through me,
Can’t see,
Call me,
Claw me,
Forget me,
Judge me,
Don’t.

Indirect,
Perhaps,
Betrayal,
No return,
Perhaps,
Accusation,
Kiss and tell,
Not to me,
About,
Choice,
Top drawer,
Always,
Expectation,
Release.

Listen,
Trust me,
Retain,
Plug it,
File it,
Trust me,
Never.

About temptation… (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

The apple on the tree,
The serpent from the sea,
The beautiful Eve,
And me.

Listening to the hissing,
Kissing,
Tempted to cheat,
Consumed in a mouthful,
An obsession needing to be fed.

But the fruit’s bittersweet,
Not good to eat,
Our slippery friend,
One step ahead.

To have avoided this fate,
Though now it’s too late,
What we should have done,
Was kill the fucking snake.

Why aren’t novels illustrated?

illustration collage

This may seem like a ridiculous question. But calm down everyone… clearly, the words in a novel should paint a far more vivid picture than any illustration ever could. That’s exactly the point-of-view that I’d normally argue: it’s sacrilege to even consider putting pictures in novels! Novels harness the power of words, they’re not picture books… yadda yadda…

But… would the right sort of illustration enhance some novels?

Of course, illustrators can be great artists – we can all recognise that. But we’re only allowed to appreciate illustrations if they’re in childrens’ books or in comics.

The closest we tend to come to an illustrated novel nowadays is in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which illustration is used intelligently to help us gain insight in to the mind of the protagonist/narrator: a map of a street, a hypnotic pattern from some fabric, a scrawled doodle. Maybe this is the furthest that an author can push illustration without the risk of producing something that’s seen as more of a novelty than a serious novel.

curious

Both of those books were critically acclaimed and hugely popular – I love them – it can work when done well. And they aren’t alone: The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith was called “A British beat classic for the 21st century” by Esquire, and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall created images out of the words themselves. What I’m interested in is whether a more ‘straight’ form of illustration can still be effective – or is it just completely unnecessary in a novel?

Is there a middle ground for the right book? Perhaps a hybrid of a traditional novel and a graphic novel? Whaddya think?

Any suggestions of books that have actually done this successfully?

The brilliant illustrations at the head of this post are from:
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Takes From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Stuff that inspires me: #2 Murmur by R.E.M.

rem_murmur_cover

Everything is open to interpretation. That’s the beauty of things. There’s no right way or wrong way; we take what we can from what we experience. This series of posts is about the stuff that inspires me. I’m not trying to convince you – I’m just brain-dumping some fanboy love on to the page. Not everyone will agree. That’s ok.

This is one from back in the day – but it’s the ones that stick with you that can have the biggest impact. First off, try to put aside any preconceptions (misconceptions) you may have about R.E.M. This was their debut album back in 1983 and a record I first heard many years ago but after the band had reached global mammoth-ness with Losing My Religion.

The reason it’s so important to me isn’t just that I love the music and that it hit me at an important time of life – I also love what it represents. This is a true indie album. Produced by I.R.S. Records in Atlanta, Georgia, I think it stands up against any of the great indie debuts and, as the music scene has evolved in the last 30 years, I actually think it may have gained even greater recognition if it was released today instead of back in the 80s.

That’s not say that it was ignored at the time – released in the same year as Thriller and U2’s ‘War’, Rolling Stone Magazine still nominated it as their record of the year, which was pretty unusual for such a ‘small time’ release.

The band members were all around 20 years old. They lived, worked and studied in Athens and, like a lot of kids, all wanted to be in a rock band. But great musicians? Not really. Lead guitarist, Peter Buck, was such a novice that on many of the tracks Mike Mills actually plays ‘lead bass’ to make up for it. Buck learnt to play once he was in the band, not the other way round.

And Michael Stipes’ distinctive vocals that are intelligible, save for the odd recognisable phrase… was he intentionally distorting his voice? It seems as if he’s too shy to let his words ring clear and true: at this stage he’s the opposite of a confident, brash frontman. In the words of Mitch Easter, the producer:

“We put him in in front of a microphone and that was the sound he made.”

However, what they were saying was less important than how they said it. They had a raw urgency and edge that I don’t think they ever reproduced and I think few bands have achieved, while turning out such great songs too. Just like looking at a painting that you don’t entirely understand but that speaks deeply to you nonetheless, Murmur gets you on a subconscious level and doesn’t let go. Even 30 years later.

The merest hint of snow (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

Overnight,
The temperature dropped,
Wafting the merest hint of snow,
Through the air,
Like dandelion seeds,
Gently blown,
Then blown away,
To make you wonder if they were ever there.

The loneliness of being a writer

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“What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with problems in solitude.”

– Henry Miller

A writer’s world can be a strange one: we desperately try to find moments of solitude but then, when we get it, often struggle to adapt to the loneliness.

The truth is that writing can be a lonely old business. It usually needs to be. And different people cope with that in different ways. What’s important is that we choose and embrace this solitude rather than feeling powerlessly cut adrift. I guess that’s the difference between solitude and loneliness.

I actually like the solitary nature of writing – but I’ve found that I’ve been at my most productive on writing retreats, where I’m surrounded by other writers. In it’s own way, this is still isolation: in a house in the middle of nowhere, with no distractions and nothing to do except write from morning till night. It’s inspiring to feel the energy coming from the other writers in the group – that was the additional motivation I needed – but I still had to find my own bubble to write in.

There’s also the ‘no-one else understands’ loneliness. Oh yeah. If you stick your head out the window right now you’ll be able to hear that wail from a thousand heads looking up from a thousand keyboards.

And it is true. It’s highly unlikely that anyone else (except other writers) will understand exactly what it is you go through every time you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, knowing that you’re embarking on a process that will take months, if not years, to complete. Not only won’t anyone understand why you do what you do – but they may not understand what you end up writing either!


It’s not so easy to fit all this in to our day-to-day lives. We crave the moments we manage to find for ourselves: after work, before work, at weekends, when the kids are out, on that weekend away, on the train. And it’s never enough. But then we make the time and guess what?

1. We procrastinate

There’s always that friend you meant to email, the youtube clip you meant to watch, the washing-up left in the kitchen sink, that thing you had to do that you’ve been meaning to do and you should probably at least look in to how you go about starting to do it.

If only someone would ring on the doorbell, you’d invite them in for tea and cake.

And sure, you want to build up a social media profile, to update your blog regularly, to make contacts… but if you haven’t made peace with the solitude and put the time in to your writing then the other stuff is all for diddly squat (is that even a phrase or did I just make it up?).

Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

I guess this is now a tough love post!

2. The pressure, the pressure!

We’ve found the time and the space to sit with our pen and paper or at our keyboard… but what if the words won’t come? What if everything I write is shit? It’s making me crazy!

You know what? Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

Ok, I know I’m being harsh. There are plenty of techniques and exercises to help get the words flowing – I’ve suggested and discussed a lot of them since I’ve started blogging. But being a writer is tough, no matter how much we love doing it or how much we feel that we have a story that needs telling. We need to learn to make friends with solitude and be hard on ourselves. Think of it as a privilege to do what you’re doing, not a chore, no matter whether your friends or family understand. For me, it’s all about being continually surprised and excited by what I’m writing… and if I can stay in that place then I’m a happy man.

(Photo by me)

(One day I’ll learn how to write a structured article)

Dancing on sand / Living for the now (another excerpt from my 1st draft)

The coach headlights are thrown on full beam,
Illuminating a sandy stage,
As the dancing pairs,
Defy their age.

And though the evening is warm enough,
That coats aren’t required,
You still couldn’t have guessed at the inspired,
Choice of attire on display.
Sequins, sequins everywhere,
Heavy make-up,
Cumulus hair,
No colour to garish,
No trouser too tight,
An army against blandness,
Dressed for the fight.

Here, there’s no disgrace,
In a belly that struggles to remain penned,
By the buttons on a shirt,
Or a jowl that wobbles more,
Than a few years before.
It’s not about being airbrushed and pert,
Because the reality,
Is that this happiness comes more,
From enjoying the commonalities,
We find with other people;
More from appreciating what you’ve got,
Than what you had;
Not from being grateful,
Just from being glad.

Authors who look like their writing: #2 Kurt Vonnegut

random houe:reuters

Look at him, with his dishevelled, curly hair and tidy moustache, with his rumpled face and wry smile. He could be a mad scientist or a kindly history professor… maybe a bit of a wise guy. Or a genius novelist who was in turns prophetic and vulgar, a poet and a cartoonist, a non-conformist and an acrid wit. He’s so loved that I feel hesitant to give him any of these labels. To me, he seemed eternally disappointed in humanity yet filled with an absolute optimism in the possibility for human kindness.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
perhaps
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.

– ‘Requiem’, Kurt Vonnegut

(Photo: Random House/Reuters)

I’ve been asked a few times if I’m taking suggestions for other authors to include in this series.
Of course, bring it on.