Ructions at the Beeb

I've never understood quite what it is about Jonathan Ross that merits 18 million pounds of licence payers money, but I always assumed I wasn't 'getting it' - whatever it was he had. In the current interesting difficulties, it's hard not to indulge in a measure of schadenfreude.
I've a softer spot for Brand's irreverent idiocy than Ross's carefully calculated performances. Davina McCall called them 'silly boys' today. Well Brand may be but it's a very long time since Ross could be called a boy. And beside them both, the incomparably funny Ricky Gervais, emphatically NOT commenting on it all last night, looked like a model of wit and wisdom.
What did surprise me, just at first, was that - as I know from bitter experience - even the word 'Christ' when used in a radio play, has to be 'referred up' as the expression goes, for permission to use it. So how in God's name did they get away with it? And then it struck me that the whole BBC structure allows certain people to become so powerful that nobody in immediate authority dares to question them .
Still, I suspect the furore isn't so much shock as a kind of generalised outrage that public cash should be draining down this particular black hole, cash which, moreover, is so frequently collected with menaces from a cross section of increasingly hard up souls. And I do mean menaces. I am the frequent recipient of communications from the TV licensing authority sent to a television-free holiday house which I look after for some friends. And they are outrageous. If I were to pursue somebody for money - especially somebody who didn't actually OWE me that money - in the inflammatory terms employed by the television licensing authority, I reckon I'd have been taken to court long ago.

Another Small Radio Grumble

Yesterday, my play the Price of a Fish Supper was repeated on BBC Radio 4. And a couple of unsolicited appreciative emails from complete strangers came my way immediately afterwards. Which was nice. Unfortunately, on the same day, the producer to whom I had sent a couple of ideas, also emailed me to say that they had been comprehensively turned down. She had decided (rightly I think) to send a round robin email on this occasion, just so that we could all see that we were not alone in our misery! The Beeb had turned down a whole tranche of submissions from a group of experienced writers.
With more than 200 hours of radio drama to my name, and a couple of major awards for plays, I cannot get a radio commission for love nor money these days. I've said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again. I've moved on, do plenty of other things. And yes, it was probably time anyway. But I can't pretend it isn't hurtful and irritating, because it is. Especially when the odd piece that does somehow manage to squeeze under the wire is so well received. I'm convinced that Fish Supper only managed to be made because the reviews of the stage play had been so wonderful that it would have looked very odd if they had turned it down.
Actually, I believe the key word here is money. The way the fee structure works at the Beeb is that they pay more, quite a lot more, for experienced writers. As a playwright, I can see how this works, since producer/directors have to do a considerable amount of work with new writers. As an aside here, I should also mention that I can see no reason why the same tiered fee structure should apply to short stories. Either a story is good enough to be broadcast or it isn't. The editing involved is minimal and there's no reason - except one of economy - why a beginning writer should receive less than an experienced writer for a story.
Many years ago, when John Birt introduced 'producer choice' (which meant exactly the opposite) and the internal market, a great many experienced producers left the BBC and went independent, since so many dramas were being commissioned from outside the Beeb. The workings of that internal market were so crazy that I can remember being called up by continuity announcers asking how to pronounce my name. The Pronunciation Unit used to deal with such matters, but during Birt's reign, all such enquiries were charged to programme budgets, and it was easier and cheaper to phone me.
Then the whole climate changed again and the indies were left high and dry. Which perhaps serves to explain why so many of the dramas you will currently hear are barely dramatic at all. They are stories with bits of additional dialogue, and nobody in the building appears to know how to remedy it.
I keep thinking I'll give up entirely on radio, and I probably have. But just occasionally an idea comes along that seems to be wholly suitable for radio, (and I should know!) So I'm tempted to waste my time trying all over again. From the evidence of the round robin email - and that's only one producer - there are a lot of us out there.

Still Living LIfe Backwards

Recently, a friend presented me with an old copy of a book called Identities, an anthology of West of Scotland poetry, prose and drama, edited by Geddes Thomson and published by Heinemann in 1981. She had been flicking through it and my name had jumped out at her, three times to be precise. There were two longish prose extracts and a poem. The book is in front of me now and when I read the extracts, the prose in particular, I'm reasonably impressed with my own style, not least because the extracts were from contributions to another book and I wrote them when I was in my early twenties.
As so often now, I read things that I wrote way back when and remember the person I was way back then, so full of hopes and ambitions and interests - and wonder what happened to me?
Well I'm still full of hopes and ambitions and interests . But more and more these days I get the impression that I was a better and far more honest writer then, when all my thoughts were focussed on the writing itself and not on the business of trying to make a living out of it.
I think I fell into a trap of trying to please too many people, and not pleasing myself enough. In fact 'please yourself' has become something of a mantra for me. Not, 'please yourself' in the selfish sense, ie satisfying yourself at the expense of others - but making sure that whatever you do in a creative sense pleases you first and foremost and that you don't waste too much time trying to conform to the demands of a dozen other people who have all kinds of ideas as to what you should be writing about and how you should be writing it.
And if it was a problem for me, how much worse now when the internet has spawned a thousand websites where the blind can lead the blind in the shape of a million opinionated amateurs presuming to give advice to their fellow writers? Me too, but at least I'm speaking from a certain baseline of experience. And I'm a member of a wonderful online group (you know who you are!) which contains many writers of all kinds who are generous with time and support, but equally cautious about giving direct advice, knowing that it can be tricky, only offering it where it is requested. Experience makes you wise, makes you very reluctant indeed to offer hard and fast advice. Rather, you tend to go along with William Goldman's dictum that 'Nobody knows anything'. You find yourself asking questions, trying to tease out of people the way they really want to go but never never telling them what they ought to do.
Meanwhile, reading things I wrote years ago fills me with a retrospective sadness because I seem to have come all round the houses and found myself back where I started. Only seeing it through more experienced eyes of course. And maybe that's the trick. Maybe it's what we all have to do: trying to find a way of avoiding cynicism, of fusing the getting of wisdom with the freshness we once had, when everything was exciting and full of potential, of pleasing ourselves as much as we possibly can.

Short Stories

I seem to be leading my professional life backwards these days. Having gone back to writing poetry, I now seem to want to go back to writing short stories as well. But it isn't so very strange because I do think that poems and short stories seem to come from the same source of inspiration. Occasionally something will present itself as an idea for a poem but then you find that you need considerably more elbow room and it somehow turns itself into a short story. I reviewed William Trevor's recent volume of short stories, Cheating at Canasta, for the FT last year and it seemed to me as though his stories had the quality of poems - so densely layered that although they were a wonderful read they were a somewhat uncomfortable read as well. It was like throwing a pebble into a still pool, watching the ever widening rings and uneasily wondering exactly what has been stirred up there.
Then last week I went to a reading by Bernard MacLaverty who reminds me of Trevor, and not because both are Irish writers. Bernard's stories are quite different from Trevor's and very much in his own voice, but there is a quality of observation, of wisdom, of a deceptive simplicity with profound depths beneath, that is shared by both writers and which makes them both wonderfully readable.
Somebody in the audience asked him for advice about writing and he said 'Yes. Don't trust anybody who gives you advice about writing.' But he also suggested that - in pursuing your own unique voice - it is no bad thing to imitate those writers whose work you love. I agree. Too much prescriptive criticism from people who don't actually know that much about writing themselves can be very destructive to the creative impulses. But that's quite a different matter from using a fine writer like a pair of stabilisers on a bike - before you know it, you're off, peddling furiously all on your own.

What's in a Name?

After all these years, I am seriously thinking of changing my name. Actually, I probably don't need to do that. All I need to do is use my other name, the one I acquired when I got married. Lees. Catherine Lees. Easy to say, spell and remember.
Except that when I did get married, my then agent said 'you're not changing your name are you?' and I said 'no'. But maybe back then, it would have been a good thing.
I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because for all that I've spent the past twenty five years or so as a reasonably successful full time freelance writer, earning my living that way (a pretty precarious living, but still!) with awards and fellowships and plays and publications to boot, nobody up here in the small pond that is Scottish literature ever remembers who I am and - much more important - what it is I do.
So what has prompted this cry from the heart? Or should that be howl of protest? Partly it was because, for some unknown reason, I was prompted to join a Facebook group called Wannabee a Writer. Still don't quite remember why I did it. Anyway, I finally saw the light and thought, I've got an agent, a substantial body of published and produced work, and even, God help me, a play as recommended reading on the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus. If I'm not a writer now, I never will be. And like a small pebble starting a landslide, that caused me to question my whole writing persona.
Partly it's my own fault of course because I've chopped and changed a lot, working - variously - on radio drama, television, theatre, stories, novels, non fiction and poetry, with a bit of journalism thrown in for good measure, but then I'm not alone in this. Most writers find that they have to have a portfolio of work to keep them going.
Catherine, I said to myself, You are no longer a wannabee. (You can tell that I give myself some very good advice, though I very seldom follow it.)
But all writers, I think, find it hard to see themselves as professionals partly because a writing career generally evolves over a long period and we learn and change all the time. So we tend to retain that feeling of being an apprentice long after other professionals have taken full advantage of their experienced status. And guess what - that's how people tend to treat us. They take us at our own valuation and tell us that it's a nice little hobby we have there, and ask us what it is that we actually do for a living?
Mind you, I find that many male writers, particularly here in Scotland, do tend to be much more full of confidence in themselves and their abilities than the females. They know what they want to write and how they want to write it, they go ahead and do it - and once more, people take them at their own valuation. In promotional terms, whatever they do, they seem to start out with a very clear idea of their own branding.
So maybe that's the answer. Maybe I need to rebrand myself. Reposition myself in the market place. Invent a new me. Give myself a new name. And I think I need to start pleasing myself more. By which I don't mean selfishly ignoring the needs of others, but actively trying to ask myself what - in a professional sense - might make me happy. Pleasing myself. It's a simple enough concept but in the context of what I do for a living, it seems frighteningly revolutionary.
I think I need to go and lie down in a darkened room and think about it some more!

Back to the Drawing Board

or back to the PC at least, from an all too brief holiday in the South of France where -unlike Scotland, for most of the time this summer - the sun was shining and it was warm. Have spent the days since our return trying to catch up on mainly writing associated tasks including drafting out a piece for the Financial Times weekend supplement about the beautiful mediaeval city of Carcassonne. Mind you - as anyone who has read Kate Mosse's Labyrinth will know, Carcassonne has a very checkered and somewhat brutal past. I knew about the place years before I saw it (for the first time, last year) because when I read Mediaeval Studies at Edinburgh University I had a friend who was obsessed with everything to do with the Cathars, the Albigensian Crusade and so on. She would bend the ear of anyone who would listen with stories of that time, and the horrific cruelties inflicted on the Cathars by the establishment, and all in the name of Christianity. It was fascinating and ever since, whenever the subject of Templars, Cathars etc has come up - quite often, since the Da Vinci code phenomenon - I have thought of Dorothy, sitting in our flat, clutching a glass of wine and regaling us with tales of mediaeval savagery. The last time I saw her, she was heading for Venice with all her worldly goods in an assortment of carrier bags. We stuffed her into a railway compartment with them - and never heard from her again.
I'm busy revising The Physic Garden which seems good in parts - and about to try to build on my recent commissions for the FT by trying to place more - many more - freelance articles. I seem to have discovered an unexpected talent for travel writing although I'm aware that it is a heavily over subscribed market. The other thing I know about and can write about in a popular way is, of course antiques and most particularly 'women's things' for want of a better term - textiles, embroidery, vintage and antique clothes, dolls, teddies, perfumes, jewellery. What really fascinates me is that whole area which antique dealers call 'provenance': the tales which are embedded in objects from the past. It's a fruitful source of inspiration for writing and I intend to try to tap into my own knowledge over the coming year.

The Physic Garden - Drafting out a Novel

I have (three cheers!) finished the first full draft of my new novel, The Physic Garden. But there's an odd phenomenon with this one and I remember it happening before with - I think - The Curiosity Cabinet. Normally my advice to any writer embarking on a full length novel for the first time would be to write at length and then set about pruning and polishing. It's invariably easier to cut than it is to 'pad things out' - a process which is generally deemed to be inadvisable. On the whole, I agree. However - in this instance, something else has happened and I think I would compare it to the way in which an artist 'blocks out' a picture. I have written about 70,000 words, but I suspect that the finished novel will be a good deal longer, at perhaps 85,000 or even more.
Somebody on a Writers' Message Board of which I'm a member, was asking about recommended novel length the other day. She had been told that 100,000 words, no more, no less was the recommended word count, which seems a mite prescriptive to me. The consensus was that it tended to be 'horses for courses'. If you are Penny Vincenzi you can get away with writing at extreme length (and she does it so very well.) But most of the published novelists among us tended to think that anything between 80,000 and 100,000 was about right with some genres demanding fewer and some demanding more.
And yes, normally, it's much better to write at length and then make your cuts.
But sometimes there needs to be another stage in the process and I think that's the one I've just completed. I needed to gallop through the whole thing for various reasons. One was to get to know my characters and try to understand what seems to me to be quite a complicated set of relationships. Another was to see if the plot actually hung together. And a third reason (this being a historical novel set in Glasgow in the early 1800s) was to find out what I didn't know. Quite a lot as it turned out. One of the pitfalls of writing historical fiction is that the research tends to dominate - you become so fond of your discoveries that they become an end in themselves and the result is heavy handed fictionalised history. Paradoxically, one way of avoiding this is to tell the story and find out what you (and the reader) really need to know. The result is often that you know more than you need to about some things and less than you need to about others. But once the story is blocked out, you can see exactly what you need to know to push the story forward.
All of which goes to explain why this first draft is a wee bit shorter than I would have expected. I can almost guarantee that the next draft will run to about 100,000 words. And then it will be pruned down quite drastically.
Which sounds like a lot of work - but for me, this is the really enjoyable bit. I like revising much more than getting that first draft down. It's like having a framework to hang onto while you venture out into the unknown and I love it!
More as it happens.

A Sad Little Urban Crow Poem

Here's another one - this time without an illustration. It would, I fear, be a bit harrowing!


The urban crow, more used to coping
with other birds, their wings a single
forlorn sail in the road, the occasional
mangled cat or flattened hedgehog,
is strangely moved by the sight of a deer
beside the motorway, none too big,
a baby, hardly begun muses the crow
but thrown clear by some careless boy racer.
The crow knows it is always men
who put their foot down hard
and never the female of the species.

Now the creature sprawls on the verge
elegant, even in death.
which is not to say that
the crow is not tempted by such
unexpected plenty and
vaguely outfaced by it as well.
Poor bambi.
But it must have made quite a
dent in his paintwork, thinks the crow
with a certain satisfaction.

Catherine Czerkawska

Writers in Residence - a bit of a rant!

I had an interesting conversation with a friend at the weekend about MONEY. A thorny topic. Although the details are not relevant, she was pointing out to me the discrepancy between my attitude, and that of certain friends in the (ahem) legal profession. She had been bemoaning the relative paltriness of payment which she was receiving for a week's consultancy work as a seasoned professional in her particular area of expertise. I had done a quick tally and found that it was roughly equivalent to the sum that writers are paid for a week's tutoring at the Arvon Foundation, and which is considered to be pretty reasonable remuneration. 'I'd do it!' I told her. It was, incidentally, roughly equivalent to the sum that most writers - other than a favoured few - are paid as an advance for books which have taken/may well take several years to write. But hey, we are all volunteers and mustn't grumble.
What was amusing was that she then had the same conversation with a group of lawyers who pointed out that nobody could be expected to work for such rubbish money. Which possibly serves to explain why we are still such a divided society!
However, the point of this posting lies elsewhere. Some weeks ago a friendly journalist asked me what I thought about a recent advertisement for a poet in residence and I had, somewhat rashly perhaps, agreed to be quoted in that I thought the sum of money on offer was paltry. So did every other experienced writer of my acquaintance, although this is possibly because most of us have been made cynical by age and poverty.
The residency purported to pay for a 40 hour week for 9 months, for £13500 (pro rata)
But while £18000 per annum is a reasonable starting salary for a graduate, it is not a full year's salary these days for anyone with even a limited amount of professional expertise and experience and yet that was what they were advertising for - somebody with a substantial body of work.
I pointed out that shelf stacking would be a better option. A colleague, more in sorrow than in anger, pointed out that the residency was much better paid than that - but I'm not so sure. So called 'replenishment managers' (wonderful term!) for Tesco can command £22,000 with all kinds of extra benefits. And they don't need to be seasoned professionals with a substantial body of published work either.
Now I love poetry, and I'm by no means averse to working for very little or even for free when everyone is in the same boat and when it's in a worthy cause. I've done it countless times. But many years of struggling to earn a living have also taught me that the commercial sector tends to take us at our own valuation.
Now all of us would have been delighted to work for a fixed 2.5 days per week for the sum of money on offer. I do it myself for another organisation, helping students with their academic English, and thinking myself very lucky indeed to have the job. It's generous, it's challenging and enjoyable, but it doesn't expand outside those very fixed part time boundaries. What I do with the rest of the week is my business. In fact - mostly - I write! For hours and hours!
So the problem, I think, lies in the pretence that this is a sum of money which covers a full week's work of 40 hours. It isn't and it doesn't. But the result of pretending that it does, is that the boundaries all too easily become blurred. And quite soon, the work for the host organisation somehow seems to expand to fill more and more of those 40 hours.
Sadly, the general consensus about so called full time creative writing fellowships (and this from a cross section of experienced writers including myself who have worked in them over a number of years) is that few of us have ever managed to do much worthwhile writing while engaged on them, partly because too much creative energy is involved elsewhere but mostly because such fellowships invariably expand to fill just about the whole week.
I'm sure whoever has got the job will find it a stimulating experience but they would have to be youngish and mortgage free, or retired or with some other means of support, ie a non freelance husband or wife. I think many administrators don't get to hear this side of things, because writers tend to keep it to themselves, or moan about it in online groups. But the feeling is very general and is one of the reasons why so many of us feel that the whole concept of writers in residence needs to be revamped. It would be infinitely better for the writers if they functioned more along the lines of the few fellowships that are content to pay only for the time devoted to the organisation. A fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and no pretence made that the fees involved can begin to cover a full working week. Host organisations would just have to get used to treating writers like any other professional consultant, and forego the warm glow of feeling that they were giving something away. A business arrangement, not a charity. The whole concept needs drastic revision.

Whoops Amazon

Have just gone to the Amazon page where my book God's Islanders is listed to find the following 'sponsored links'

2008 God's Final Witness : Unprecedented destruction will come in 2008, leading to America's fall.
King Jesus and Queen Miriam: The Love Story of Jesus & Magdalene
Free Christian Lessons: Got problems? Need help? Study the Bible. Start Fresh. Be Happy.

This is presumably because of the word 'God' in the title, although the book is a well researched history of a Hebridean Island and bears no relation to any of the links listed. It leads me to wonder if I might find links to Home Improvement manuals on the Bleak House listing. Or how about Aviary Construction in connection with The Birds. The possibilities for cyber idiocy are endless.
There's a chapter about the history of the Kirk of Scotland on the island but the God of the title may have more pagan than Christian connotations. Nor, I'm willing to bet, would anyone who might be remotely interested in reading God's Islanders, be equally interested in any of these links.
Sometimes the internet has its drawbacks. Among which is the ability of software to make moronic connections. No finer demonstration is required of the 'garbage in garbage out' maxim.
I'll retire to bedlam.

The Urban Crow Studies Archaeology

The crow is getting a little serious here. But there you go. He can't be funny all the time. I saw him in town today. He gave me this beady glance, as if to say 'get a move on, you've been neglecting me' which is true. I've been down south. Where I saw very few crows, urban or otherwise, but quite a lot of skeletons, come to think of it.

Somewhere in the city
Archaeologists are uncovering burials.
The crow notes how they gloat
over skeletons, brittle with age,
here a clavicle, and there a skull.

He’s surprised by
their lack of respect in dealing
with the remnants of their fellows,
perplexed by the way time
confounds these humans.

He has seen the frequent
ceremony of interment,
heard them mourning mortality
heard their censure
of his own carrion habits.

Now, watching them scrabble
after a few bones,
he wonders how they can
so casually rob graves
in the name of science.

The Urban Crow Receives a Threatening Letter

I have a television license, honest, but I have friends who don't have a television, and are constantly receiving horrible letters from an authority that doesn't believe that anyone could get along without one. In fact over the past few years, here in the UK, all kinds of government sponsored advertising (mostly on TV!) has undergone a profoundly irritating change. They used to be content with patronising us. Now they assume an increasingly threatening tone. Big Brother - about twenty four years too late - is well and truly in charge.

We have reason to believe
says the letter
that yours is the only house in the street
without a television license.

That would be about right thinks the crow.

We have passed your details
to our Enforcement Officers
who will shortly be in your area
says the letter.

Bring them on, says the crow.

We will not tolerate abuse of our officials
adds the letter, loud with intimidating
phrases like

The crow, well aware of the law,
knows that they would have to catch him
watching the television he doesn’t possess,
to find him with his non existent
remote control in his claw.

Cor says the crow and shreds their message.

A New Novel

I have been pondering the new novel with more than a little enthusiasm. I have been trying to get going on something new for far too long and indeed have made many long and involved attempts, only to dislike the resulting chapters so much that I have shelved them and started all over again. Not just one novel, but two (and I don't mean the Corncrake - I mean something completely new.) Anyway - at some point in the last day or so, it all came together, and I saw the whole thing, not just the story, but how it should be written, and whose voice it should be told in, and how he might tell it and for the first time in a very long time I am anxious to get going and find myself scribbling words on odd bits of paper, or waking in the night with an insistent voice in my head, this man who is trying to get his story out. I even dreamed about him.
The problem with this story, which has been lurking at the back of my mind for a very long time, was that although the characters and the situation, the time and place were all there, I couldn't see where it was all going. Well, I could see where it was going, but not how or why it got there. It was a strange and sometimes uncanny feeling for me - I could hear and see these people, three of them - but even when I gradually realised who was telling this tale, I didn't know exactly what had happened to him. I didn't know the why of it all. I knew bits of it, but none of it seemed important enough or powerful enough to explain later events. And then, all of a sudden, as though my narrator had been reluctant to get it out, even to me - as though the character himself had buried it - there it was. It shocked me. Am I tantalising you, or just myself? Watch this space.
I'll let you know how it goes!

The Urban Crow Considers Burns an a' that

This is posted by special request. Here in South Ayrshire, the birthplace of Robert Burns, we have an annual festival called 'Burns an a' that'. It's supposed to be a festival of 'poetry, music and song' celebrating the life and work of our national poet although poetry never looms very large on the official programme. Somebody who works in marketing once said to me 'Burns doesn't sell' and it's all too obvious that our local council is of much the same mind. The 'a' that' usually eclipses any tiny mention of Burns.
The headline act at 'Burns an a' that' this year was Status Quo, and there was a Harley rally as well. Excellent entertainment - but all suggestions of a 'literary' nature as part of the officially funded festival seem to have been turned down flat. Next year, a HUGE anniversary, 250 years since Rantin Rovin Robin was born, looks all set to have the same omissions. Rab would have recognised the attitude. All of which is background.
Here's the poem!

The urban crow watches television through a shop window
and wonders why a band of ageing rockers
called Status Quo are heading up a festival
named for Scotland’s national poet.
The band seem to be wondering the same thing.
The festival director who looks as though poetry is as
foreign to him as ploughing is declaring
how much Rab would have loved the Quo.
The crow is sceptical, reflects on
how folk invariably presume to
know what somebody would have done or wanted
when attempting to defend the indefensible.
The crow knows nothing for sure
although he decides that a poet who celebrated mice
and sheep but not to the crow’s knowledge
corbies - might nevertheless have
liked to go rockin all over the world.

The Urban Crow Worries Woodpigeons

Two doos are sitting on a wire.
Who, they say.
Who was it? Who was it?

It was I, says the crow.
I cannot tell a lie.
It was I.

What did you do?
What did you do?

I killed cock robin
with my bow and arrow
says the crow.

Let us fly,
say the doos
and they go.

Credulous bastards
says the crow.

The Urban Crow Looks for a Job.

There's a swear word in this poem. Apologies in advance to anyone likely to be shocked. I couldn't help it. It has to be there. For overseas readers, you should know that wheelie bins and refuse disposal and the precise regulations for the arrangement of rubbish are a weekly feature of our news in the UK at present. Some poor soul down in England was even threatened with imprisonment over his refusal to pay a fine for infringing the rules.

The city council is advertising for refuse collection operatives.
I could do that, thinks the urban crow.

He goes online and notes that big plastic wheelie bins are
environmentally friendly and convenient and
will be emptied on a weekly basis.
On the day of collection, the wheelie bin
should be placed at the kerbside
so that the handles are towards the street.
After the bin has been emptied, the householder must
ensure the return of the bin to their property
unless some wee nyaff has tipped it in the canal first.

All refuse must be contained within the bin.
Any refuse placed at the side of the bin
will not be collected
Not even dead cats asks the crow?

It is important that no heavy items
are put in the wheelie bin
due to the potential risk of the bin
falling from the vehicle’s lifting gear and
flattening the refuse collection operative
particularly if he is a bird.

If at any time the bin is considered to be overloaded
a sticker will be placed on the lid with appropriate instructions
like your fucking bin’s too full get it sorted.

Although the wheelie bin is made of high quality
environmentally friendly plastic,
corrosive substances should not be placed in it.
If you find you cannot manoevre your bin because of age
or infirmity, (or wings, thinks the crow)
and there is no one available to help you, due to your
thankless family having buggered off to Australia then
please contact the Council for assistance.

The crow decides not to bother.
He’s a pretty mean waste disposal machine
himself but.

Paying the Writer

Last week a journalist acquaintance from the Times phoned me up to ask me what I thought about SPT's (Strathclyde Partnership for Transport) advertisement for a Poet in Residence to write and source poems for the Glasgow Subway. I said - for I could not tell a lie - that I thought the project itself sounded absolutely brilliant, and something I would love to have been involved in myself, but the pay was appalling. They weren't looking for a student or trainee. They wanted an experienced writer with a considerable body of published work to source poems, set up and run a writing and a reading group in a local library and throw in a series of workshops in a primary school for good measure. All this was based on a nominal 40 hours week, for 9 months of which half (ie 20 hours a week) was meant to be spent on the writer's own work. Quite apart from the fact that the job as described would definitely take longer than the 20 hours allowed - workshops demand preparation - the remuneration is £13500. Now if you do the arithmetic, you will see that this comes out at something like the minimum wage.
SPT are looking for an experienced professional consultant, for which they are planning to pay call centre wages. Their executives told the Times that the project would be a 'showcase' for the poet's work. But as the redoubtable Harlan Ellison points out in no uncertain terms such showcasing does little or nothing to help the writer. I've been married to an artist-woodcarver for many years now and if I had a pound for every time somebody has asked him to work for little or nothing 'because it will be a good showcase for you' we would be a wealthy couple. When did you last hear of a time served and experienced electrician being asked to work for the minimum wage 'because it'll be a good advert for your services'? And before anyone tells me that artists and writers are expendable while electricians are not, when did you ever hear of a specialist arts administration consultant working for the minimum wage in order to advertise their services?
Money. I'm hugely well qualified, experienced, committed. When I'm employed, I work hard. In return I expect a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.

The Urban Crow Plays in Traffic

The urban crow sits on some stone hero’s head
watching folk pass below.
He briefly contemplates tweaking off a pair of specs
or alighting on a bald patch or
dicing with death among cars where
a drunk has dropped a takeaway
but decides it would be more prudent to
make for the park where there will be
kids with ice cream cones or popcorn.
He can con popcorn from an infant nae bother
with a wee stare from his beady eye
but he treads carefully.
See they buses, says the urban crow,
they’d run you down as soon as look at you.

Introducing the Urban Crow

So there I was, a few weeks ago, walking about Glasgow, when I spotted a large black bird, wandering in and out of the parked cars, as though deep in thought.
That was the start of it. I came home and wrote a poem called The Urban Crow.
Then - about a week later - I saw the crow (Was it the same crow? Who can say!) sitting with his mate in a cherry tree.
And later still, I spotted my crow perched on one of those big open waste bins, examining the contents.
There are six or seven Urban Crow poems now, with another one coming roughly every week. I'm growing ever more fond of him. He's nothing like his elemental alter ego - Ted Hughes' wonderful, savage and highly intellectual beast - although I'm beginning to think he has certain aspirations in that direction.
No - he's a bit more craven, and equivocal: an urban crow, who casts a wry and beady eye on the goings-on round about him. I've tried out some of these poems at poetry readings and the crow invariably gets his own little round of applause. He seems to appreciate the attention, because (uncannily) I've started to see him all over the place. Only today, I caught a glimpse of him sifting carefully through cut grass outside the Burrell Collection in Pollock Park....
Tune in regularly, to find out what the Urban Crow might be reflecting on next.

The Intellectuals and the Masses

I've been meaning to read this book for a long time, but finally managed to get my hands on a copy. It is subtitled 'Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880 - 1939'. Having read John Carey's 'What Good Are the Arts?' some time ago, and found myself agreeing with just about everything in it, I wanted to find out what he had made of Lawrence, Woolf and the rest. Now - about half way through - I find that it's one of those rare books that I am reading VERY SLOWLY in an effort to prolong the sheer pleasure. It's witty, sharp, intelligent and full of profoundly disturbing insights - but written in the most elegant prose imaginable. Beware though. You may never feel the same about certain parts of the literary canon again.
Just to give you a flavour of the whole, here's Carey writing about sculptor and designer Eric Gill and others like him who - keener on the cult of the peasant than they were on the great 'mass' of humanity, which they persistently tried to dehumanise - pretended 'to be peasants themselves.' Gill, seemingly, wore a variety of 'peasant' costume, including a 'belted smock and, in winter, loose scarlet silk under drawers.' But all the same, he wasn't too keen on the idea that everyone should be taught to read and 'hoped that a bomb would fall on Selfridges.'
This is a clever and entertaining assault on the founders of modern culture. It was first published (to establishment consternation) in 1992. Wish I'd read it sooner: the kind of book that you want to shout 'Yes!' and applaud after every chapter. Not only that, but I began to see disturbing parallels between this and so much of what passes for commentary on 'mass' culture nowadays. I was amused, though, to find a Louis MacNeice quote, about hospital nurses spending their savings on 'cosmetics, cigarettes and expensive underclothes.' His snobbery and sexism were strangely echoed in a letter which I received only a few years ago from somebody in a position of authority within a major literary organisation. When I had said that I simply couldn't afford the fees (this was nothing less than the truth) he - it had to be a he - accused me of spending my earnings on lunches, cosmetics and the like instead. A true inheritor of MacNeice's prejudices!

Poetry and Other Things

Recently, I've been talking to several other people, artists of all sorts, about collaboration and wondering where all these ideas are coming from. Not that I'm giving the game away about the exact ideas on here - well not just yet, although when any of these potential projects get off the ground then I may well be blogging about the process. But it's the ideas, and the novelty of them that is engaging me right now. I don't necessarily mean originality here, although I do think that at least some of what's in the air for me is original. But I've been meditating about why I've suddenly been possessed by a number of creative ideas that seem to bear little relation to anything I've written for some time.
I think it's partly because I've been working with media studies students and their excitement about their own projects has proved inspirational. I had forgotten how wonderful it could be to engage with a piece of work simply for its own sake.
The best way of explaining it is maybe to relate something that happened to me in the past.
Once upon a time, I studied a long, ancient and mysterious poem, as part of a university course. And no, I'm not saying what it is, because I have a feeling that somewhere down the line, I'm going to want to go back to it! But it's the process that interests me. I laboured over this difficult piece of work for weeks, until I was bleary eyed and confused. And then suddenly, it was as if some strange correspondence between the words, their meaning, and the shape of the poem on the page slotted into place, and I understood it and its implications all at once. It made me dizzy, like looking at an infinite panorama or up into some great dome. And of course, it may simply have been fatigue! But that doesn't invalidate what in retrospect was one of the key experiences of my life.
Well, it faded. Other things took its place. Until recently when some of that excitement seems to have come back. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I've given myself permission to take myself seriously as a writer again. I don't mean that I'm going to write relentlessly joyless stuff - but I do mean that I'm going to try to write with a real sense of experimentation.

On the Need to Invent and Reinvent

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about the process of writing, in a personal sense, of course. I can't make judgements for other people, only myself. And - you know - I increasingly feel that the online world tries to do just that. It's relentlessly judgemental - full of people, often spectacularly unsuccessful themselves - who are all too anxious to make sets of rules for other people to follow. I've been tempted down that route myself from time to time although frankly I've always been a bit of an anarchist.
I spend one day a week helping students with their academic writing but that is completely (and blissfully) different from dictating how people ought to write creatively. With so many years of experience in so many different areas of writing, I can look at a piece of academic work in a discipline I know nothing about and still make helpful suggestions. Often it's because I know very little about the subject under discussion that I can see the wood for the trees, and suggest what seem to me to be minor structural changes which - so people tell me - are often immensely helpful.
But creative writing? Well, I find myself increasingly reluctant to say anything about anybody else's work. I have a handful of writer friends - less than a handful, to be strictly accurate - for whom I do the odd bit of reading - as they do for me. I trust them, I hope they trust me. But I'm never really criticising what they do in the sense of judging it. I may interrogate the work itself and them from time to time, to give them a sense of how what they've written comes across to a friendly reader. I may reinforce their own doubts about certain aspects of the work with the occasional gentle query. (We always have doubts. I was going to say, even seasoned professionals. But I think they -we? - have more doubts than most. We all know enough to know what we don't know!) I will be scrupulously honest and as observant as I can be. And I often find myself praising what is genuinely wonderful in the hope that my feedback will help balance those doubts which do beset all writers from time to time. I like to think that I can be of some help - but I'm too busy wrestling with my own creative angels to be judgemental about anybody else's!
So over the past year, I have spent rather a lot of time thinking about what I write myself, and why. How I feel about it. How I want to feel about it. And why - over the past year - I seem to have ground inexorably to a halt in some aspects of my writing, while in others I am so full of ideas and experiments and insights that I hardly know where to begin. As writers we are naturally inventive. 'Where do you get your ideas from?' is an incomprehensible question to most writers. We are usually full of ideas and we neither know nor care where they come from. That's never the problem. The problem is all too often the translation of those thrilling ideas into words on the page. Because sometimes, you look at them and they seem so pedestrian. What soared in the mind limps along on the page.
Which leads me to the idea of reinvention. But it's late. And I'll save that for another post.