New Computers and Call Centre Hell

As any writer will tell you, changing computers is the single most dreaded event. You put it off as long as possible, you back-up and compulsively print out, you think 'I won't do it this week, I'll wait a bit' and whichever way you look at it, you know it's going to be pure hell. It always is.
I've just done it, and it was pure hell and the ramifications are still rumbling on, causing me to waste time, tear out my hair, and call upon God to witness that I have never done anything to deserve such pain and angst. Let nobody, not even PC World (the main culprits in this instance) tell you that they will make the transition smooth and pain free. They won't and they haven't. The actual events - though I have them written out in full for my own records - are too vastly complicated to be anything but boring, so I won't list them here. Save to say that I wanted (a) a new PC with Vista and Office 2007 and (b) a full data transfer from my old PC, as well as a health check, and whatever needed doing to make it run properly. It's an elderly (hmm, well, 5 years) HP and a good computer, and I wanted to be able to use it as a word processor, unconnected to the internet. Let me say right from the start that the old PC, bought from PC World has never given me a moment's trouble. Well hardly any. And the new one seems to be working pretty well too. And I like Office 2007 very much indeed, even though I have to make sure I save documents in the old format when I'm attaching them to emails, since most people's older versions can't read them without downloading something else. But these are minor points. No, what happened with PC World was that for about two weeks they didn't do what they said they would do and never phoned me to let me know what was going on. I spent a fortnight running back and forth to the store, to the extent that they have just, very kindly, sent me a cheque for £50 to cover my unneccessary petrol expenses. I spent what in retrospect seems like hours speaking to polite young men in call centres (in Sheffield, so they told me. We got quite friendly.) On more than one occasion I was forced to take a couple of Kalms. You know that feeling you get when you would like to go out and smash something? Possibly a computer.
The old PC is up and running again after a fashion, but seems sluggish and unhappy, and faintly off colour, like somebody recovering from the flu. Also they succeeded in corrupting a heap of files, so I have had to re-install all kinds of things. The old, old, old PC with its old old version of Word, which I have been using for word processing for some time, was wonderful, fast, clear, easy. I long for its return, and eye it as it sits forlornly in a corner of the room, waiting to be formatted and taken to the saleroom. It has never been online, and it doesn't really have any private data on it. Unfortunately, it only had an old fashioned floppy drive, and even that didn't seem to be working properly, so whatever you put on it was precarious to say the least. Otherwise, I would be using it yet.
But PC World weren't the only culprits. No, Orange weren't exactly angels either. More polite young men tried to get my broadband to work with Vista. I have been on and off the phone to them as well, and on and offline more times than I care to recall, and yesterday I had to try fiddling with it myself, in an effort to get it to work. (Which, eventually, I'm pleased to say, it did although not thanks to any of the helpful young men at Orange.) I'm writing this from elsewhere, so I'm still not sure if my solution is permanent or temporary, which for someone trying to run an internet business is challenging to say the least.
I am seriously thinking of reverting to Pen and Paper.
Meanwhile, this week, the Bank got a standing order wrong, and paid my accountant twice over.
Yesterday, Sky phoned me to offer me a month's free trial of films and sport. The only snag was that you had to set it up, and then if you didn't want to continue with it permanently, you had to let them know within 24 hours. You mean, I asked the bright young woman on the end of the line, you mean I have to phone Sky? (press one for... press two for...)
Well yes, she said.
In that case, thank-you very much but I don't think I'll bother, I said.

Torchwood, Norman Wisdom and a Bit of Jamie

I spent most of yesterday evening sitting on the couch like a slug and watching TV in between playing with the new PC and finding out some of what Vista can do. (quite a lot as it turns out, and very elegantly, but sometimes the speed of my typing causes it to throw a bit of a wobbly) so here's a little TV review.
Torchwood is back - I never quite got into it the way I got into wonderful Doctor Who, but this new series seemed watchable, and entertaining, if only for the sight of Buffy's Spike (for whom I must confess I had a very soft spot in his previous vampire incarnation) dressed like an escapee from Pirates of The Caribbean, kissing Captain Jack. This lead me to a bit of mild speculation as to why it's OK for heterosexual men, and gays of either sex to incorporate their fantasies into their writing - and don't get me wrong - they often do it very well indeed! - but when us middle aged heterosexual women try to do it, we are roundly slated for being romantic or sentimental or both. This is not, incidentally a criticism of those who get away with it. More a plea that all of us should be allowed to do it and when we do it well, accorded the same leeway as the rest of you.
After that, and mainly because by that stage I couldn't bear to leave the fireside for the relative chill of the study, I watched a programme about an aged Norman Wisdom and his family's problems in finding suitable care for him. I found this a distasteful and exploitative little programme, masquerading as public service broadcasting - what do we do with our old folk? As one who sometimes feels that she is hurtling through life at twice the speed of light, it should have been interesting and thought provoking but it was simply undignified and embarrassing and depressing, and the most depressing thing about it was that his family had allowed it to be made at all.
It was, however, Jamie Oliver who eventually drove me back to the PC. Chickens are one thing, and I know we're all getting fatter, (especially while watching television in a wintry stupor) but sitting people in baths of oil while a scrawny doctor reduces them to tears by implying that they are going to DIE VERY SOON, all so that Jamie can be solicitous and offer a solution - well, it quickly became unwatchable. In fact curiously enough, while the programme about chickens would almost certainly have made people look at the alternative to the miserable battery farmed option, this week's offering probably had people rushing for the crisps and coke through sheer misery and panic. If the programme about Norman Wisdom was a wee knock, this was full on car crash television. Better by far to watch kissing time agents and get a vicarious thrill out of it. At least that may have given some of us an aerobic lift.

New Ventures and The Curiosity Cabinet on Audible.

Apologies to my irregularly regular readers for a rather big gap in posts to this blog. The main reason (other than seasonal distractions) has been that I have spent the last few months taking stock of where I'm at with my writing and perhaps more importantly trying to decide where I want to go next. Obviously, this is the right time of year to put some of those decisions into practice.
As I've said elsewhere on this blog, somewhere about mid 2007, poetry came back into my life. It was sudden and unexpected - a lightning strike really - and to be honest, I wondered if it would stay. But so far, fingers crossed, it has, and I find myself working on more poems than I have written for some twenty five years. Nobody ever made much of a living from poems, but I don't really care about that. I'm too busy thinking about the insights they bring with them.
Yet another change was inspired by a friend and excellent critic who read The Curiosity Cabinet and told me that - although he liked the whole book - he thought the historical sections were somehow better imagined and therefore more successful in many ways than the modern sections. On reflection, I reckon he's right, and this too helped me to see that the novel I have been struggling with for the last couple of years wasn't working too well because it is crying out to be a historical novel - and I was desperately trying to turn it into a contemporary solution to an old mystery - with marketing in mind.
I had written some 75 pages of it, very very slowly, and found myself disliking quite a lot of it. So I have temporarily shelved it - the basic theme and story is a good one, so I'll certainly be going back to it. But to give myself breathing space, I am now deep into a novel set in Glasgow a couple of hundred years ago. It's a reasonably literary story about a loving male friendship, a tragedy, and changing times and so far I'm enchanted by it. I hope that one of these days, some editors might be enchanted by it as well!
Incidentally, if you would like to read The Curiosity Cabinet you can now find a download from the excellent Audible - a very good unabridged reading from a reputable company.
Meanwhile, I have something for you to read - this week, and for some weeks to come - but I'll save it for a new post, later on today.

The Scent of Blue, final version

For anyone who can't (or doesn't want to!) get hold of the poetry pamphlet, here's the last draft of the title poem, which seems to strike a chord with a number of people, particularly women. There's an earlier version of this somewhere on here - but this is the one that was published.


A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.
She manages to find a single seat,
sees a famous conductor,
silver haired, sharp featured like some
bird of prey, but smaller than you would
expect in evening dress.
On his arm a thin woman,
taller than he is, strides with
striking face and hair, a cloud of
grey blonde curls around her head.
Not a young woman but a
diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,
inhabiting her skin with such confidence.
She wants to be like that some day,
longs for self possession
and she remembers the scent of her,
musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time
scent, like flowers after dark.
The scent of passion.
The scent of money.
The scent of blue.

She searches for the scent for years.
Her mother wore Tweed.
Now she wishes she could
open a wardrobe door, and
smell the scent of Tweed, her
mother’s plain sweet scent,
almost as much as she
wishes she could tell her mother so.

As a girl, she wears Bluebell,
fresh and full of hope, or
Diorissimo, like the lilac she once
carried through the streets,
on her way from meeting a man
she desired and admired, thinking
Girl with Lilac, still so young,
self conscious, not possessed.
Later, she tries luscious l’Air du Temps and
Je Reviens and Fleurs de Rocaille
but they are none of them the scent of blue.
She wears Chanel, briefly, with
dreams of Marilyn,
loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,
soothing as chocolate but
Number Five is not her scent,
never suits her, never will.

She discovers Mitsouko.
Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.
An old, old fashioned scent,
syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.
Whenever she wears it,
women ask her what it is,
I love your scent they say.
How strange the way scent lingers in the mind.
How strange the way scent
changes on warm skin.
On her it ripens to something peachy,
mossy, rich and singular.
But it is not the scent of blue.

She loses her heart.
It is an affair of telephone lines
more profound, more sweet and
bitter even than Mitsouko,
a sad song in the dark,
and the colour of that time is blue.

Afterwards, she searches through
Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee,
Nuit de Noel, Mon Peche, Apercu
until drawn by nostalgia
she finds Joy,
dearly bought roses and jasmine,
a summer garden in one small bottle.
She marries in Joy.
But she wears Mitsouko
and she forgets the scent of blue.

Older, she discovers Arpege,
not just rose and jasmine but
bergamot, orange blossom, peach,
vanilla, ylang ylang,
one essence piled on another like the
notes on the piano she
used to, sometimes still does, play:
love songs mostly.
Oh this is not a scent for the very young.
It is too dark for that
a memory of something lost,
an unfinished story.
This scent has a past.

She sees him across a room.
Another woman ushers him,
this way and that, makes introductions,
a little charmed the way women
always did flutter irresistably around this man.
It used to make her smile the way
women flocked around this
wolf who walked alone who
belonged to nobody but himself.

She is wearing Arpege.
Not a scent for the very young,
vertiginous as the layers of time between.
With age comes wisdom,
but as when mud is
stirred at the bottom of a pool,
memories bubble to the surface.
Not wisely but too well they loved.
Now, they are waving across the
chasm of the years.
They speak, in measured tones,
they speak and walk away,
they speak again in careful words, that
every now and then
recall the scent of

It will not do.
Only in dreams
can one innocently recapture that
first fine careless

So much more is forgotten
than is ever remembered.
And the clock insists
let it be let it be.

One summer evening
a young man observes the way
twilight closes the flowers,
whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,
the way the light goes out of the sky,
painting it dark blue, how
soon the war will tear this place apart.
How soon all things resort to sadness.

In a new century,
She finds among jasmine and rose,
vanilla and violet,
a dark twist of anise, like the
twist of a knife.
First last always.
The scent of the diva.
The scent of passion.
Fine beyond imagining.
She sees it is essentially
sad, sad, sad, a
sad scent:
L’Heure Bleue.
The beautiful bitter perilous scent of blue.

November Blues

Almost the end of November, and what have I achieved this month? Sweet nothing, that's what.
Is it the time of year or the time of life? I don't know.
I have sat at my desk and tried to write, regularly, but the results have been something less than inspiring.
I have done a lot of thinking and the results of that have been a bit more interesting, but faintly depressing as well.
I am chasing my tail to make some money but the bills get higher and the earnings get lower, and after a while, you wonder what it's all about.
The mornings are dark and the evenings are darker and you work away but nobody wants what you have written...
Welcome to the world of freelance writing.
You may remember that - a longish while ago - I mentioned a play called The Physic Garden and how I was waiting to hear from David McLennan at the Oran Mor about it.
Have I heard from him? You bet your sweet life I haven't. Not a word, zero, zilch, nada.
BUT, having lived with William (the gardener) and Thomas (the botany lecturer) for all these months, I have begun to think that there is more to these characters and their relationship than meets the eye, much much more than I have been tinkering with in the play - and so I have begun to write their story as a novel. Thomas is the one telling it. And it suddenly seems to have the potential to be a serious, funny, moving and literary story.
All of which fits in with the doubts that have been besetting me with increasing regularity over the past couple of months. I think I have seriously short changed myself for years and years in the pursuit of the elusive will o' the wisp of commercial success. Nothing wrong, I might add, with a bit of commercial success. But when you find that you are increasingly tailoring what you write to the demands of some elusive market - and actually, you still aren't making any money out of it, however, professionally you behave - you do start to wonder. I must admit, that over the past few months, I have started to think that I have been selling myself short for years. I used to have the potential to be a writer of some consequence. One or two of my plays have shown the literary skills I used to have. So have a few of the poems. I should have been more true to myself all those years ago. I should have written what I wanted to write, explored all those ideas I wanted to explore, grown and stretched myself. Instead, I have the uneasy feeling that I have run up and down a series of dead ends, and the result has been that I am ill considered among people who used to admire what I did - and I still haven't made any money. Worst of both worlds really. This is a cautionary tale. Be true to yourself above all else. What I need to do (as a friend recently pointed out, succinctly) is 'fail better.' How right he is.
I'm about to give it another try.

A Room With A View - TV Version

I was so irritated by the latest television version of this classic novel that I had to wait for a day or two, just to calm down, before posting about it. Have to say I mostly hated it.
This is a much loved book as far as I'm concerned, one I read over and over again - and always find something new in it. But what could have possessed the ubiquitous Andrew Davies to change the ending so radically and what could have possessed whoever was in charge to let him? Or does he now have so much power in television circles that nobody dares to question him ?
If you haven't already watched it, don't. Go and buy the excellent movie version instead.
There were other faults with the production too, although it seems like overkill to detail them here. But one did wonder whether the casting director had quite deliberately chosen plain Brits so that he or she could contrast them with beautiful Italians. Plainness would have been forgiveable. It was just that the young men in particular had a lumpish and underanimated quality that made you wonder why anybody could ever have fallen for them. George came across as just a bit of a lad instead of the wonderful, complex and troubled young man of the novel and the film. Plus the accents, particularly Cecil's (who is written to perfection in the novel) were dodgy in the extreme. But all of this pales into insignificance beside Davies' inexplicable and wrong headed decision to kill off our hero in the war and show us a last scene with Lucy and a young Italian (admittedly a much more beautiful Italian than poor dead George) picnicking in the Florentine hills with the implication that there might just be a bit of obligatory Davies bonking round the corner.
It was AWFUL and not just because it wasn't Forster's ending at all. Because the new ending was predicted right at the start of this adaptation, and then throughout, by various flashes forward to a shorn and short skirted Lucy alone in Florence, the whole lovely balance of the book and the movie, the inevitability of the ending which is at once romantic and revolutionary, the headlong rush of it all, was not just upset but completely and utterly destroyed. Which perhaps explainswhy it left me feeling not just upset but incandescent with rage. I'll have to go and watch the film again, just to get a sense of perspective!

The Scent of Blue - Poetry Pamphlet

I've just published (or rather Wordarts has published) my own poetry pamphlet, called The Scent of Blue. In due course, it should be available from my eBay shop, The Scottish Home and from the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry website.

My last collection of poetry was published more than 25 years ago.
Since then, I've written plays for radio and the stage, novels, and histories. But this new collection comes as something of a surprise even to me. I hope that it will be the first of many. There are poems old and new here, one or two of which have already been published in magazines and anthologies including a poem called Thread, which was published in Antonia Fraser's anthology of Scottish Love Poetry. There are previously unpublished recollections of time spent in Finland and Poland And there are poems which reflect my passion for vintage perfumes and textiles, sensual, tactile things and how they can serve to reawaken memories as well as reminding us of milestones in our lives. Incidentally, if anyone is wondering about the cover picture, it's a piece of very old Chinese embroidery, slightly timeworn and rather beautiful - I'm hoping it's appropriate to the collection itself!
Meanwhile, just to give you a flavour, here's an example:


Is it day or night?
The city streets
clasp the heat fast and
late drunks tumble home to sleep.

Is it day or night?
In the warm forest
marsh marigolds jostle for a place,
small lilies crouch in hooded green,
confused thrushes chatter
like shattered glass.

Is it day or night?
Small creatures furrow
lightly on the lake in
random, purposeful lines.
Mosquitoes pilot in and bite.
Black beetles toddle to the
water’s edge.
The surface is streaked with
pollen, soft as a man’s hair.

Is it night or day?
The sun that makes a narrow angle
with the lake’s thin line
considers for a moment
along the slender
very rim of the dark
and rises again.

Art History

Have signed up for an Art History class at Glasgow University, partly because it's something I've wanted to do for ages, and partly because I have a hankering for somebody to teach me something, rather than the other way around! I looked for something closer to home, but all the local classes seemed to be vocational: modules with tests and homework. I wanted a bit of the real lifelong learning that the government is always banging on about. Except that they lie. They don't really subscribe to the idea of lifelong learning at all, or only insofar as it's a way of making people more employable. Which is all very worthy. But it's just possible that we may occasionally want to find out about something for its own sake, to learn for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of the piece of paper at the end of it.
The lecturer on this particular course is in his eighties. He is gentle, non didactic, and brimming with the wisdom of his years. This will be his last course, so I'm lucky to have signed up. In the first class he burst into song, in a beautifully melodic tenor voice - 'she was just the sort of girl me boys that nature did intend, to walk right through the world me boys, without a Grecian bend..' Did we know what a Grecian bend was? No but all of us knew the song, and all of us had wondered. He explained, and proceeded to use it as an introduction to a lecture on Greek art and architecture. Not sure what he's planning for next week, but I can't wait.

Windscale Accident

Having written a play about Chernobyl (Wormwood, produced at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh) I've been following recent radio and TV programmes which have been marking the 50th anniversary of the terrible accident at Windscale (now renamed Sellafield) with some interest. I was a very young child when all this happened, and knew next to nothing about it, although it occurs to me now, that my late father, a scientist, must have been well aware of it, and this was perhaps why - although he worked with radio isotopes for much of his (somewhat foreshortened) life - he still had a healthy scepticism about the nuclear industry and would ask searching and awkward questions about hidden costs, whenever he chanced to be at one of those 'ain't nuclear power grand' presentations.
What struck me most about last night's excellent BBC documentary about the accident (apart from the utterly superb and scurrilous last line, of course) was the way the scientists had been well and truly stitched up by the politicians of the time - and the press had more or less swallowed the whole lying story. That, and the fact that as the surrounding countryside was being showered with radioactive elements which included deadly-beyond-belief Polonium, the residents of nearby Seascale were treated like mushrooms, ie kept in the dark and fed shit. People only removed themselves and their children when workers at the plant managed to get messages home. There was no planned evacuation.
The news at the time was a cover-up that the soviets would have been proud of.
All of which leads me to wonder why so many politicians are now astonished to find that the media savvy population at large don't ever really believe a word they say. Particularly when that word is intended to reassure and prevent panic. Or as they say in Scots, the only language where a double positive can mean completely the opposite - 'aye, right!'

Cash in the Attic - Puns R Us

Have been watching Cash in the Attic, over lunch. This masquerades as 'research' though how much I ever learn from it about my particular branch of collectables (ie textiles, see The Scottish Home ) I wouldn't know. A couple of weeks ago, somebody wrote to the Radio Times about the number of puns in this programme and how it was driving them daft. Now I was vaguely aware that the pun count was fairly heavy, but you don't notice every single one until somebody points them out to you. So we sat there, today, over our yoghurt and fruit, and started counting them. Actually, we soon lost count. Every single comment, every single bit of whatever passes for a script was just a long succession of godawful smartass puns. Why do they do it?
Each programme has exactly the same structure. The participants and presenters are filmed 'discovering' things that just happen to be lurking in the front of cupboards, and then the participants are persuaded to sell these family heirlooms for what sometimes seems to be a mess of pottage. Well, I know they're all willing volunteers, but it does occasionally look as though some gentle browbeating goes on. Then, they do quite well with the first few lots, after which there is a short spell in the middle where a few lots don't quite make the grade (ooh, says the presenter, maybe Phyllis and Albert won't manage their sky diving trip after all) only for things to look up with the final few lots. Are they the final few lots? Doubt it. I've never been to an auction room yet where every sale followed the same rigid pattern.
So why do they do it? It's as if the programme makers somehow get into a rut that they simply can't get out of. The heavy handed structure - we don't need it. We won't complain if you shake it up and cheat us of our expectations a bit. We're only watching because we're working from home, we're having lunch, we're nosy, we like to see what other people have in their cupboards, and we quite like to listen to what the experts have to say about various pieces and without the awful lame puns. Please. Gonnae no dae that? Gonnae no?

Plays at the Palace

Still no news about anything, plays, novels, nothing. To be a writer, eventually, is to wait and wait, so you may as well get on with something else in the meantime, which is what I am doing: a new novel, a possible new play, some poems.
Went to the Palace Theatre in Kilmarnock, last friday, to see Tir nan Og and Walk in the Park, a double bill of plays which had already been on at Glasgow's Oran Mor as part of their Play, Pie and Pint season. Nowhere in any of the Palace theatre publicity did it state the name of the playwright. It turns out that Dave Anderson wrote (and acted in) both. I enjoyed the whole evening, but thought that Walk in the Park was superb: moving, funny, thought provoking. Afterwards, (googling to find the playwright) I saw it described as 'whimsical' but it didn't seem at all whimsical to me. A short, powerful piece of theatre is how I would have described it.
Sadly, the audience was very small. Where, I wonder, were all those people who come up to me at writer's events and ask about writing for the theatre, and more specifially for the Oran Mor? There are thriving writers' groups in Kilmarnock and nearby Ayr, so why did more of them not come along to see for themselves, especially since this was a 'pay what you like' event. Envelopes were handed out as you went in, and you put in them whatever you thought fit at the end of the production. It is a pity more professionals (politicians? builders? lawyers? doctors? ) are not paid in this fashion....
Anyway, there was no risk of feeling that you had wasted your money, but still very few people came. A shame.

Plays, Poems and Pictures

Looks as if the poetry pamphlet is going ahead. Waiting to get ISBN numbers. Waiting, and waiting and waiting. My life is spent waiting for people to make up their minds and do things. Meanwhile the printer called to say that he liked the photos which I was hoping to use on the cover. Seemed, in fact, extremely taken with them. This surprises me, since I'm a bit of a hit and miss photographer. Know zilch about the techie side, just point the digital camera and press the buttons. It's a close-up of an old piece of embroidery - Chinese I think. A bit ragged around the edges, which seems to me to be a good enough image for the poems too. Here's a bit of it.
Meanwhile, finally managed to speak to David McLennan by phone. I sent him a draft of a 'solicited' play, a potential Oran Mor play, many months ago, but haven't heard a thing since. He was, predictably, very busy. (This is true. The poor man is constantly busy, and constantly harrassed by playwrights, like me.) He promised faithfully that he would call me back in the middle of the afternoon. I waited in, specially. The phone never rang. Then, much later in the day, I realised that there had, in fact, been a problem with my phone itself. Aaaargh. I have missed my one window of opportunity, and I reckon it will never ever come again.
Later still, realise that this new season of Oran Mor plays includes one by my bete noir of last year, Tom Tabori. Shall I (a) go and see the play and heckle from the back (b) go and see the play and give it the same glowing - in the inflammatory sense - review as he gave mine or (c) ignore it completely? Of course I could go and enjoy it. There is always that possibility.
There is definitely too much seriousness going on at the moment.
We are writers. We make stuff up. That's about it. It is by no means a matter of life and death.
My horoscope for this month was astronomically excellent, but I see little evidence of it in the real world. Well, not as far as my career goes anyway. Perhaps it means something else altogether!

Poetry, Clothes and Other Things

Sorry folks, but I've had to re activate comment moderation, mainly because the magic word 'poetry' induced a flurry of strange and anonymous comments. I don't mind the strange bit at all, but I do mind the anonymous element, and won't ever post anything that comes in anonymously.

Late last night, I noticed that an American bookseller is selling a copy of The Curiosity Cabinet on Amazon for £127.63. I am gobsmacked. The rights to this have now reverted to me. I'm considering Lulu-ing it, but am kind of hanging onto it for the moment, in case (some day soon, I hope) I find another publisher, not Polygon, who - having published the new novel - may just possibly want to reprint it and give it a better innings.

Back to poetry. This morning, I woke up wondering if I should (a) spend my money on publishing a new pamphlet of poetry (which was last week's plan) or (b) spend my money on new winter clothes. Yes, I've been browsing through the Sunday Times's 'Style' section - which this week is dedicated solely to fashion, much of it reasonably affordable.
And I know which option looks most enticing right now.

A Hard Day's Night and the Beatles

Started watching Hard Day's Night, on BBC TV, very late last night, and then couldn't stop. So many memories. I saw the film with my mum, the first time round. We stayed on in the cinema and saw it twice. Not only did I know all the words of all the songs, but I knew every nuance of every arrangement, ever quirk of the way they were sung, and most of the dialogue as well. I felt like a kid, who has to have the story told in exactly the same way every time....
As the Radio Times pointed out, this was a ground breaking film - until then movies made for the likes of Elvis and Cliff had been a series of lighthearted stories with the songs slotted in.
OK, so this was still a lighthearted story with the songs slotted in, but the way it was filmed was utterly and completely different from anything we had seen before, in the best possible way, and was the forerunner of a million arty pop promo videos.
The other thing that struck me about seeing this brilliant movie again, after a gap of a few years, was just how young the shrieking fans were - little girls who looked like little girls.
Everyone had a favourite Beatle. Mine was, and still is, John Lennon. I adored John, used to dream about him, and write stories in which he was the main protagonist - an early version of fan fiction - and I've since discovered that I wasn't alone!

Self Publishing and Poetry.

Since I've been thinking about self publishing a pamphlet of my own poetry - for reasons which I'll outline in due course - I thought it might be a good idea to talk about the process here on Blogger for the benefit of anyone who might be thinking along similar lines.
At this time of the year, perhaps because I seem to do more work in autumn, winter and spring, than in summer, when too many other things get in the way of writing, I always have the desire to take stock, think about what and where next.
I'm shelving plays for the time being.
Well, I say that's what I'm doing, but I have several proposals of one kind or another 'out there' and if somebody said 'yes' I wouldn't, of course, say 'no'! It's just that nobody ever responds at the moment, and unless I want to get a group of actors together, hire a hall and 'do the show right here' there's little more I can do, except carry on writing dramas that, in all likelihood, will never see the light of day. And much as I love working in the theatre, there is only so much on spec work that you can do. This is not, incidentally, aimed at beginners! Most beginners can expect to do nothing but on spec work for years and years. But there does come a point where you have had a number of critical successes, and many years of experience, but are still not getting any response to submissions, not even rejections, and at that point you have to wonder if you can - or even if you want to - carry on doing it for much longer.
This is, perhaps, a hallmark of just how dedicated you are to a particular medium: ask yourself if you would continue working in it (a) if nobody was responding at all and - perhaps more interestingly - (b) if you were earning so much money that you didn't have to do it. This last condition, alas, doesn't apply to me, but there are certain areas where I would still answer a resounding 'yes' - namely with novels, and poems - perhaps because I feel I still have so much to learn with novels, and am progressing further with each attempt, each rewrite. Well, that and the hundreds of ideas, buzzing around my brain. And then there are poems, where a long hiatus, and all those years of writing drama which seems to have become increasingly poetic, have brought their own rewards. I'm writing more measured poems, more surely, knowing what I want to say and how I want to say it.
Which is where self publishing comes in. Not for the novels of course. I still have hopes of finding a conventional publisher for those, particularly for the work in progress, which concerns a contemporary answer to a historical mystery, and seems pretty commercial to me - but certainly for the poems. I have a couple of pamphlet's worth and am writing more all the time. And the thought of sending them out and waiting and waiting, only to have inexperienced editors tell me what I ought to be doing makes my heart sink. A few years ago, before I stopped writing poetry altogether, I sent some poems to a literary magazine, which had better remain nameless. Back they came with the comment that the reader liked the 'livelihood' of the little boy in them, but not much else. She meant 'liveliness'. But the fact that I was being expected to take criticism from somebody who clearly didn't know the difference, astonished me. So I'm thinking about self publishing a couple of pamphlets partly for my own satisfaction, partly because the whole process interests me, partly to have something reasonably priced to sell at readings and workshops, and partly because I have other plans for some of the poems, but need something that looks professional to send out. And at the moment, I'm talking to printers. Of which more later.

Festival Disasters and Other Play Stuff

The Edinburgh Festival has not been what you might call a roaring success, as far as The Price of a Fish Supper goes. Well, actually, everyone who has seen the play has emailed or phoned, or called in person to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Unfortunately, very few people have seen it. Most of the time, poor Paul has, like the ancient mariner, been talking away to a handful of people - which actually isn't too much of a disaster as far as this play goes, because it is written in the shape of an intimate conversation with the audience.
The problem stems partly from the fact that it was a late decision to stage the play at all, and consequently it isn't mentioned in the official fringe brochure. That, coupled with the fact that the fringe is just so big these days, means that nobody has 'discovered' the play. They have had to be pointed very firmly in its direction. And even between several of us emailing friends, relatives and friends of friends, there's little we can do to muster a proper audience such as the play had for a whole week at Glasgow's Oran Mor. Hey ho. These little things are sent to try us. And my how they do.
Meanwhile, am waiting to hear something, anything, about my new play The Physic Garden, about which there has been a complete silence on all fronts.
I submitted another script, called The Locker Room, to a scheme whereby plays are read by 'experienced readers'. My heart kind of sinks when I hear such things, because I wonder just how experienced they can be. Are they, for instance, as experienced as me? But everyone, even the most experienced of us, sooner or later needs some editorial input. The first reader loathed it and said so at length. If I had really been the starter playwright he so obviously assumed I was, I probably wouldn't have put my head above the parapet for another ten years. The second gave it much more considered, sympathetic, as well as extremely useful and insightful feedback. The contrast was quite startling. Which goes to show something, but I'm not quite sure what!

Large Boys Rowing

A title to conjure with. Spent yesterday in Gateshead International Stadium, with large viking like son, who was doing a trial for the Sporting Giants project - they are aiming to find likely medallists for the 2012 Olympics, in sports such as rowing. Son filled in online form earlier in the year - the only absolute criterion was height, seemingly you have to be really tall to be a good rower, with no experience necessary - and then forgot all about it. To his amazement, he was invited to a three hour trial at the Gateshead stadium. That was yesterday and involved a three and a half hour drive along the side of Hadrian's Wall, and back again in the evening. We had a little interlude in lovely Corbridge while we bagged what my family like to call 'mum's piles of old stones' - in this case the remains of a Roman Town (and a truly enormous pile of old stones) just outside the new(er) town.
Then it was on to Gateshead. The boys, and the occasional girl, though there didn't seem to be many female applicants, had been invited in groups of about thirty, starting each hour through the day. There are trials in various places throughout the UK. It was a little like an X Factor audition though without the wailing. Large Viking Like Son was very pleased that he compared favourably with his group, since it turned out that so many of them were career sportsmen, doing degrees in Sports Science, or excelling in other sports. Suspect that of those who got through the initial selection process, a further few must have dropped out, alarmed at the idea of a 'trial'.
Charles has done Karate very seriously for years, plays squash, runs a bit, used to play ice hockey but - although he considers himself 'sporty',which is quite rare in a mathematician - never really thought of making a career out of it. He doesn't expect to be one of the tiny number eventually selected for 'Boot Camp' but will seriously look at the possibility of joining a local rowing club, since he enjoyed himself so much.
What struck me, though, sitting on the sidelines as a mum, was what a nice bunch of (toweringly tall) boys they were. And I kind of wished that the doom laden tabloids would for once come along and see all these lads who had made the effort to spend several hours exerting themselves in a worthwhile cause. But it wouldn't make very good copy, would it? Large boys rowing? Hmmm. Depends on who you think your readers are!
A final thought - Gateshead is lucky to have such a wonderful stadium. Speaking as one who has spent hours and hours freezing her backside off, while son did ice hockey training when he was younger - small ice pads tend to be murderously cold, even for the spectators - it made a nice change to sit in such pleasant surroundings.

Cut Glass (an old poem but one I'm fond of!)

Oh speak to me of things that do not matter.
Our friendship is a fragile thing.
Speak too loudly and
It will shatter.

Each self is patterned with
The other self.
We are similar but not the same,
Surrounded with a tissue
Of touches now and then
Or compliments.
The light shines through us
Is distorted.
We both pretend
Not to know
That this fragile thing
If subject to one outright blow
Would shatter.

Take care.
Oh speak to me
Of things that do not matter.

(From White Boats, Garret Arts)

I wrote this many years ago, but it still seems to mean something, even to this older changed me. And I suspect it will mean something to a few other people as well. Somebody once set it to music - it was beautiful. Could have just possibly been John of the cheekbones, here. Or George in the same picture. I seem to remember that John did the singing. But we've lost touch over all these years, and I can't remember anything about him, except the melody he wrote, and sang! If he's reading this I hope he gets in touch. They were from Fife, these guys, and they were brilliant musicians. I read my poems, they played and sang - now people seem to be 'discovering' this sort of thing again, as if it is quite new. Nothing's new. Ever. And meanwhile, we carry on speaking about things that don't matter....

Number Thirty Two

The house had once been an old farmhouse. Years later, I found it on a facsimile of a map from the seventeen hundreds, a small cluster of buildings in open countryside between the city of Leeds and the village of Holbeck. It felt like a farmhouse still, although by the time we lived there, the city had enclosed it; factories choked the air round about, the railways clanked in the distance and only the street names reminded you of a distant rural past:- Whitehall Road, Springwell Lane, names with a hint of green.
Number Thirty Two, Whitehall Road was where my grandparents lived. Next door was their shop where my mother helped out, selling boiled sweets and cigarettes to the workers who passed to and from the surrounding factories. And next door to that was the fishing tackle shop where my grandfather spent most of his time, fiddling with reels and rods and talking to little fat anglers in waistcoats and flat caps. “Ey up Joe” they would say to him and sit down to drink strong sweet tea out of china pint pots and reminisce about fishing trips to Tadcaster and York. He sold maggots for bait and kept them in a tin bath, flavouring them with sawdust and curry powder for enigmatic reasons of his own. When I was three years old I would run my fingers through them, fascinated rather than repelled by their constant motion. Nobody told me to be revolted by them so why should I mind?
As a very young man my grandad had sailed on the last of the tea clippers, and spent his free time making the intricate wool work picture of a sailing ship that hangs on our sitting room wall. My grandfather loved me unreservedly. I could wind him around the smallest of my small fingers, the way my mother wound my fat Violet Elizabeth ringlets and tied them up with red satin ribbons.
“My little queen” he would call me, using the old Yorkshire word for woman.
“Who sewed your hair on Gangad?” I would ask him, running my finger along the back of his neck where the sun deepened creases looked like stitches.
He was tattooed as well, and I would trace the pictures on his arms, loving his illuminated skin, reading him like a book.
Up above the shops was the two roomed flat where I spent the first seven years of my life, until my handsome Polish refugee father, managed to get enough qualifications to obtain a research fellowship at the university. At weekends my parents would take me on the bus to Old Farnley, to walk through bluebell woods, to see wasps’ nests and tadpoles and – on one memorable occasion – a grass snake curled up in a hollow. But most of my pre school weekdays were spent down in my grandmother’s kitchen at Number Thirty Two.
I remember every detail of that kitchen the way you always do when you’re very small. There was a big black-leaded range on one wall with a fire oven where my grandmother baked loaves and plain “oven bottom” cakes and sometimes curranty shortcakes, made with flour and the best butter and baking powder.The sink to the left of the range was set into the wall, and tiled in white. It smelled of bleach and more mysteriously of potatoes. To the right of the range was a big wooden bank of cupboards and drawers, a sort of early fitted dresser.
I remember the cool marble topped table where my grandmother rolled out her pastry, with the cupboard underneath where she kept Jacob’s cream crackers in a green coronation tin. There was a kitchen table made fancy with a ginger velour cloth and a brown leather covered stool, like a hovis loaf, which lived beside the range and always went by the name of “Rufty Tufty” like a person. My grandfather had made the brightly coloured rag rugs which softened the stone floor. “How about it on the rug Vara?” I would say to my mother’s sister, my Aunty Vera who used to sit on the hearthrug with me and read fairy stories and film magazines aloud while I picked at the tufts of cloth with my starfish fingers.
The house was a long, thin house with mysterious cellars beneath, and two rooms on each of the three floors above. Up in the attic was a “Galloping Scooter” a little carriage and horses, brought from London by my impulsive grandfather when my Aunt Nora (the eldest child) was a little girl. But it had only had one outing during which poor Nora was mobbed by curious children. Thereafter it was used indoors where it survived intact to become a later exhibit in York’s Castle Museum. I didn’t much like it back then. I preferred my teddy bears:- Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson as well as Brown Dog Dingo, a morose woollen dog, who seemed very large because I was so small.
At the back of the house was a yard, where my grandfather had once tried to make a duck pond, but his ducklings had left their mother too soon and drowned, one by one. Such tragedies always beset his attempts at country living, here where the city hammered against all his walls.
Beyond that again was a washhouse, with a copper and a big mangle, and the pungent smell of soapsuds. And beyond that was the outside toilet, with its scrubbed warm wooden seat and the scent of bleach and whitewash. I was too young to go through the washhouse by myself at nights, so someone would always take me: my mother, or sometimes my aunty, and I would sit on the lavatory and pick the flaky whitewash off the walls, and watch the comforting glow of her cigarette in the dark.
The house was warm too and dusty and yeast scented and safe. Yet things were changing. Relentlessly, time claimed us. My grandfather was a diabetic with failing sight; and ulcerated legs that grew gangrenous. My grandmother had a series of small strokes that left her confused and vague. But so fiercely did my mother and father and my aunt work to protect me, queen of the household, from the adult world, that I was never fully aware of their misery. It only lurked on the edge of my comprehension. I wished things were as they had been, but didn’t know why they were not.
And now, in middle age, I know that I have never again felt so safe, and so universally loved as I felt within those rooms. After my grandparents died, the house lay empty for many years. Once, in my twenties, I went back but it was derelict and very sad. Brown Dog Dingo lay in a corner, but the moth had got into him, and besides, he was amazingly small. How could he have grown so small? And then Number Thirty Two was sold to the factory next door which promptly swallowed it whole.
I live in the countryside now and tell people that I’m a migrant from the city. But it doesn’t seem like that. Instead I had a blissful country childhood in a house which somehow kept the memory of a rural past buried deep within its walls. But still it haunts my dreams, and it, at least, has not grown small with the passing years. The house has changed subtly and Number Thirty Two grows ever more beautiful and magical. In my dreams the house has begun to spiral outwards into underground passages and tapestried rooms, all richly decorated, and peopled with both the living and the dead.

Son's Brilliant New Video Games Blog!

If you have a moment, have a look at my son's new blog, Gamesecosse. He's a mathematician (just going into his final year of an honours maths degree) who can actually write. And he's been mad about video games for years. OK, I'm biased, but I think he's making a good job of promoting this most exciting of new industries - having spent so many years trying to defend his choice of career/interest/obsession against the misunderstandings of those who believe that all games are (a) facile, (b) violent, and (c) mindless. I've a lot of sympathy with him, because it does seem to me that so many writers (and publishers) ignore the vast imaginative possibilities of the new technologies. He's intent on working in video games design but seems to have a real flair for writing about it - and a perception of just how exciting this developing industry really is. And if you've read some of the stuff out there on these topics, you'll know that the ability to put that across is something of a rarity!

Feeling really really morose

Could it be the many signs of approaching autumn up here? Nights getting darker, the advent of the coal man with several bags of smokeless fuel at alarming prices, (dear God, now the environment police will be after me, but we live in a listed building with chimneys and yes, it's very well insulated, because we're poor.) The garden looks tired and sad. Me too, me too.
Spend my working days robbing Peter to pay Paul in terms of time. Writing endless lists. Not doing half the things on them. Working late at night when I should be sleeping. And at the moment, not really taking the pleasure in the work that I should. When you're a young writer, I think you have this faith that one day it'll all happen. You think it'll be enough to learn your craft and work hard. You'll have a success, and be able to build on it.
Well I've been writing for forty years now. I've won awards for plays and poetry, had plays produced to rave reviews, had novels and non fiction books published, and I still find that nothing changes. There's no sense of a career progression. Not only that, but I think that the constant struggle to be produced, published and publicised has encroached on the very real joy in the work that I used to know. Oh. And I've got repetitive strain from using a mouse, and my shoulder is giving me gyp, so there. Does this explain the uncharacteristically jaded posts of late? Well maybe.
All I know is that I seem to have lost the knack of writing for its own sake. Well, maybe it's lurking there. And I know it'll come back again. Just that for the moment, I think I need to do the snail thing, retreat into my shell, and think hard about where next and why.

More Hubris

Hell's teeth now Christopher Brookmyre is at it, attempting to disprove the existence of God and all things spiritual in his latest novel. Or at least that's how the Scotsman and the Beeb reported it. So maybe I'm maligning the man. But why would a writer of fiction assume that he was going to make any converts?
What is it with these people? Can it be that they overvalue the real scientific world in which corruption and bigotry sit side by side with the 'scientific method'. My late dad was a distinguished biochemist, so I write with the benefit of his experience. Scientists are as prone to all the faults and foibles of humanity as the rest of us. The best of them are open and imaginative. The worst are blinkered and self seeking. We are all of us looking for ways of describing, of coping with the world. And for sure, all things come to sadness in the end. But many people, perhaps a majority (and it is often, though not invariably, women) have an inkling that there is much more to life than meets the eye. Sometimes it can be an experience such a bereavement, which should be embittering, but isn't. Sometimes it comes as a side effect of a lifetime's observation of how people interact. But most of all, I think, I object so strongly to the assumption that spirituality is a sticking plaster which we poor blinkered souls use to protect ourselves from the more unpleasant aspects of life. And again I say hubris. Overweening pride that subsumes any sense of humility in its own certainty.
The person in my life who was perhaps the most 'spiritual' was the most generous person I have ever had the good fortune to know. Her faith was simple and uncomplicated, but she herself was not. She never proseletysed, and didn't even attend church very often, but simply lived her own beliefs. She had overcome more of what life had to throw at her than most, yet had no bitterness. She was perceptive and full of the wisdom of her years . She was a truly 'good' person, with a warmth that defied the world's sournesses, and to categorise her as among the deluded is to wilfully misunderstand the limitless potential of the human spirit.