Bathyscaphe

Here it is once again – the most ungodly week on the calendar!

 I must confess I greet this festival each time with increasing wonder – like by whose permission am I still here?  This is a special one, though: it’ll surely be the smallest, and for the first time I go into it with the feeling of being watched – not by friends and family  who are accustomed to my excesses, but by the lurking presence of ‘authority’.   If I step out into the yard for some fresh air:

“That’s far enough, sir!”

I wasn’t going to go any further, but the strange, black-suited figure at my gate is not content with that explanation.

“You should return to your habitation immediately.  If you want air, open a window!”  His voice is muffled by mask and screen.  “Take The Pandemic seriously.  Do you realise that at least one person in a hundred thousand could suffer a moderate headache because of your selfish action?”

I won’t mention my own headache, brought about by a liberal application of gin, for fear of being gift-wrapped in cling film and carted off to an empty Nightingale Unit fifty miles away.  It is easier to retreat.

Indoors, though, the atmosphere this week promises to be, depending upon our state of ‘lockdown’, one or another kind of hell.

Not that Christmas is ever easy.  In normal years we might at least air our rapacity on the street and go about with our best ‘God bless us, every one!’ expressions as we bestow good wishes on those we meet – in normal years, but not this one.  The streets are all but deserted. Those we do encounter are so disguised by masks and haunted looks they might as well be talent-spotters for Hezbollah.

Meanwhile the media, sensing our inability to mingle with friends, relatives, loved ones, are primed and determined to batter us with a relentless hail of ‘Christmas Specials’.  Backcloths to football shows embellished with fake ‘snow’; everyone from the weather girl to the Prime Minister (oh, imagine!) clothed as if for pantomime.  Picture Dumb and Dumber, our two ‘medical experts’ dressed in crinolines, and Boris Johnson as Widow Twanky.  “She’s BEHIND YOU!”

“Oh, no she isn’t!”

 As of today the assault will intensify.   Every programme, TV or radio, is ‘Christmassed up’.  I await the Queen’s Christmas Day message with trepidation.  Mock antlers and tinsel were never her thing.

There is one consolation for us oldsters.  On the afternoon of the Sainted Day itself we elders get centre stage.  The audience may be smaller, but we can still beguile them with our tales of better times. Think of it as I think of it – as scattering the faery dust of Hope.

Some drink-impaired relative will offer a cue:  “I bet things were nicer in your day, Grandad…”

 On this special day nostalgia rules.  Be it around the festive table, ‘up the pub’ or ‘down the club’, at some stage the talk will turn to yesterdays; and some of us will relish the drift, and others will prefer to forget.

There are very good reasons why history is such a favorite subject.  Pursuant upon the miasma of too much wine and too much dine, we are too cosseted and cosy for conflict: it avoids politics, which are always dangerous, and religion, which is equally devisive.

Immortal quote:   “Stop going on about religion, Dad; it’s Christmas, for god’s sake!”

Not that history is entirely without its pitfalls.

“Remember Jeff’s party?  Things got really hot, didn’t they?  I never managed to explain to him how we broke that bed!”

After an icy silence:

“No, I don’t remember.  What bed, and who is Jeff?”

Lethal!   The greatest traps are not so much the deepest submerged, but those whose fronds wave gracefully in the coral shadows, still occasionally visible in filtered daylight from above.  Beware!  Snorkelling nostalgia is contingent upon truth. All facts are verifiable.  Only the rashest romancers dare to embellish facts that are commonly known.  Only the most boring would bother.

No, the more interesting story-fodder lies full fathom five – or three-and-a-half, at any rate.  Here, where little light intrudes, the most remarkable treasures of retrospection are to be found nestling cosily in sand, awaiting the salvage of your story.

“Ah, 2005!  That was the year Pope John Paul died, y’know.  I was in Rome at the time.  No-one expected it, him popping off like that.  The outpouring of grief was incredible.  They had to close St. Mark’s Square for fear of people getting crushed.

“St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes.  I remember how terrifying it was.  I was caught up in the hysteria…”

“In St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes, amazing place, normally. Like a great theatre…”

“Amazing – and in Venice.  Did you mean St. Peter’s Sqaure?”

“Oh?  I mean, yes, of course!  How could I forget?  It was so hot, that June..”

“He died in April.”

Little traps, with big, yawning chasms of credibility beneath!  By just that one, tiny slip are we judged; thereafter our audience will be a little less rapt, still kindly, but indulgent.

Prepared for fiction.

In nautical terms barnacle-encrusted recollections get less distinct as you descend below the twenty-year critical level.  And far safer.

 Mischievous currents may move events and places around, so as you drag your air-line among them in your steel helmet and leaded boots you can no longer trust them to be as you left them, all those years ago, but who’s to know?.

Was that before the Berlin Wall came down, or after?   ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’  Who was President then?

This is Christmas and the wine is flowing and your audience, most of whom were yet to be born in the times you so gleefully explore, is as captive as they’re ever likely to be.  Tired, well-fed caterpillars, you can watch their eyes glaze over as you help them into the chrysalis.

The Peurto Rico Trench of memories.  No-one should dive to sixty years or beyond without a bathyscaphe, yet it is warm, it is comfortable, and in some ways a liberation.  Depth and darkness.

“Did I ever tell you I was one of the crew of the Kon Tiki?  A bit of a wild one, I was, in those days.  Me and – dear me, what was his name – Floyd!  Yes, that’s it; Floyd Patterson. We used to hang around with a Swedish chap, Thor Hennerdahl.  We did a lot of boating together, y’see…”

The Monopoly Board was laid out some five minutes ago.  A face leans into vision.  The money is being counted out

“Do you want to be the top hat, grandad?”

If I look up I will see a little Mexican Wave of returning consciousness pass through my small audience

I had something important to tell them, didn’t I?  Wisdom to impart.  Whatever it was, I can’t quite remember it.   Maybe next year, when there are more of us?

No, that isn’t true; there won’t be.  Every year we get fewer in number.  Little by little, time will ease us apart.

Never mind; it’s Christmas – in ways the man in black at our gate can never understand.

“Yes, I’ll be the top hat…”

A Word in Tune

owl 2Alright, I know I haven’t posted!  It’s been far too long.

I could make all sorts of summer excuses, like; ‘it’s too hot, man’, or; ‘there are too many other things I need to do’.   But that wouldn’t be honest.  I live in Durham.  It’s never hot.   It is wet, but I’m a writer – I like to think of it as ‘moist’.

Maybe I am experiencing ‘writers’ block’ for the first time ever.  I wouldn’t know.  What are the symptoms?  In my case it’s a severe dose of  Piecus Incompletus., which is in danger of metastasising into terminal Self-Doubt.   There are slivers of word files spread all over my desktop, un-homed particles of articles I only just starticled.  My current output, like world peace, is unresolved.

Three stories unfinished; comments on Islamic thuggery, Republican bombast and NRA fatalism, all made more than adequately by others and not needing my ‘help’.   Bits and pieces, pieces and bits.  ‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’?

So, I thought, let’s do a writing ‘bit’.    After all, I haven’t done one of those for a while.   The last was concerning description and oenamata – onomata – Ernamotor… word pictures.   It was called Eyes Half Closed and if you missed it you were probably fortunate.

So today it’s the popular song – the way we work with words.   We are writers, the blank page is our instrument, how we fill it testifies to our ability to play.  Just as any reasonably astute child can bash out notes on a piano in recognisable fashion, most people can make a cogent sentence (other than myself, it seems) that will be readable.   But something extra is needed to make the listener want to come closer, the reader to turn the page.   Something raises Paganini above the crowd, something makes a Wordsworth stanza unforgettable.

Words are like notes.  Creating those memorable, pleasurable reading moments begins with stringing them together, knowing the function of each dot and comma, having a reasonable vocabulary, understanding parsing and clauses and allegory and metaphor.  There are bales of tutorials all over the internet that impart these essential rules, as there is plentiful resource instructing you ‘how to write’.

I’m not going to presume to tell anyone else how to write.  I can only pass on models I follow that one day will hopefully make me a better writer, and may, perhaps be useful to you.  Like musical notes, words have a value.   There are demisemiquavers, semi-quavers, quavers,  crochets, semibreves and so on.  It isn’t hard to string them together, although it is a little more effort to make them a tune, while to create a song that will be on everyone’s lips demands familiarity and love of the instrument.   It takes just one misplaced note to destroy a whole melody, and the English language is full of misplaced notes.

There are words I consider criminals in themselves.  Some are born and pass with fashion, like ‘snog’ or ‘basically’; others were always there and you wish they weren’t:  ‘interject’ and ‘nice’ for example.  Use at your peril, or only in dialogue where they fit a character.   Then again there are others, I think, that enhance the language with a poetry of their own:  I personally like ‘schadenfreude’ and ‘blood’ (as a term for a close relative).  The most shameful pirate of all, the robber of the deeper meaning in your work and the destroyer of the natural rhythm and the flow of the message is that b****y word ‘the’.  Arguably each of the ‘the’s in that sentence could be redundant.  Rhythm and flow are vital:  they take the reader to the next sentence, and to the next page.  Yes, we have to use them sparingly (I just did) but they lionise our rhythm and interrupt flow.

I admit it puzzles me why so many would-be writers advocate reading the works of others as a means to improvement.   I rarely read.  Why?   Not because I don’t enjoy reading, I do when I have time, but because to me, all I am likely to learn is how to write like Thackeray, or O’Brien, or Pullman, and I want to write like Anderson!   News for you, blood – the word dies as it leaves the page.   It is reincarnated inside you, the reader, as a piece of a jigsaw you find easy to assemble.  It isn’t a word anymore, it’s part of a song playing inside your mind.

Besides, what was successful for others won’t work for you.   I am a great fan of Honore De’Balzac – his descriptive writing can drive me to a deplorable state of ecstasy, but the way he drives off for his conclusion in his last chapters is badly sliced, at best.   He would not get published, or even un-slushed, today.  I could name other victims of many a double bogey, others still who were defeated prematurely by the rough.  Me, I’m in a pot bunker somewhere, hacking away and getting my eyes filled with sand.

So how do I like to write, and why do I do it?  Too big a target.  But, when I arrive at my keyboard, the character who entered my head maybe an hour, or a day, or a year ago will be there waiting for me, and he (or she) and I will have a conversation. And between us we will talk to the page that is our instrument, and we will hope we reach our audience.  We hope they will believe.  We don’t slavishly adhere to rules (you’ve probably noticed) but we hope we will have created a song they will love to sing, with surprises or revelations about themselves along the way.

That is what writing represents for me.  That is why I turn up here every day.  I do it for myself, and a few others who might wish to read.  Hitherto I have been unconcerned with media and sales, although with the compulsion of age that may change.    It would be nice (ugh!) to think someday someone somewhere will hear my tune, and pause to sing along.

 

 

 

 

Wandering

I was born in a small fishing port, at the mouth of a river which gave its name to a moor – a wild place. Dartmoor is a lofty range of misty valleys and veiled heights, of bracken and bogs and heather-clad slopes – a haven once for brigands and thieves, untamed men who served in Drake’s navy and pirated the seven seas.

No longer. Though some who perch on Dartmoor’s windswept fells might insist the wild Dartmoor_pony_foal_1men are still with us, the only manifestation of their criminality is likely to be car theft. The spirit of the moor, though undefeated, is buried deep, awaiting the next turn of history.

The River Dart retains some fame as host to Dartmouth Naval College, which ensures that our smattering of gun-boats is jealously manned, while Dartmouth itself, town of my birth, retains no fame at all, even though Thomas Newcomen was born there, a few centuries ago. Thomas who? Thomas made the first workable atmospheric engine, progenitor of the steam engine. His beam pumps were used everywhere a mine needed drying out, back in heady eighteenth century times. Dartmouth is the site where a ferry crossing once linked the main arterial road from the Devon coast to the rest of the peninsula.

Once, not now. The old ferry remains. The queues for it are as torturous as ever, but its users are there for the tourist experience, rather than an urgent need to reach Plymouth, or Truro, or St, Ives. The spider of communication has spun her web across these traditional routes, keeping them cocooned while she sucks their juices. Is this a bad thing? I don’t know. It is progress, and one should never question progress.

Although I have returned there now and then I have no early memories of Dartmouth. Nor do I recall those of my infant years which were spent in Paignton, a neighboring Devon coastal town. My first childhood memories are of Exeter, Devon’s capital city, and from there my life’s journey led me through different episodes across the southern breadth of this land – Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex, Essex, London. I have been, in short, something of a gypsy. And in all my years I never kept a friend or found a home.

Instead, a peculiar thing has happened, something that I know I find inspirational and perhaps inspires the writer in all of us. I have made a home in me. My imagination is my caravan, my mind is my world. I rarely dwell upon the past. I will not share it like a poet over a pint of beer or belabor it as a fellow traveler upon a bus journey of tedious reminiscence. I commit it to paper instead. I do not lack for company, for whenever I need a friend I can find one on a white sheet of A4. If I want a memory to share I can find that too, simply by turning another corner in my brain.

Yet the worm will return to eat its own tail in the end. Somewhere in my psyche there must be a predilection for those open moors and wind-chilled heights that were my near neighbors in infancy. Certainly I am never happy in the confinement of a city – I hate the taste of traffic in my air. This may be why I live where I do, at the place where the caravan stopped; where the wheels finally fell off, if you will. But it may also be true there are stories in Weardale’s wild fells, and a voice that cries to be heard.

37Wherever margins exist tales lie beyond. In this crowded land the taint of man adventures in high places at his peril. Where he dares go, there the wild wind and the scoured clay will whisper secrets to him in the night, will scare him with demons in the cold snow, murmur the quiet suggestions that can turn his mind. These things are the province of real men; men with some pirate still in their flinted souls, who grow up to talk with close mouths and see with narrowed eyes; who dress with no obedience to season, are slow to speak and quick to judge. Their intimacy with the land is absolute and harsh, a relationship some might consider abusive.

Although Dartmoor still harbors a few such men, there is no place for me, no home to which I would want to return. City dwellers have driven Devon men from their land, inflating house prices and bludgeoning a hole in the natural environment, squatting in triple glazed pods defiant of nature. Wherever these people reside, the spirit of the moor is a recluse that is only rarely seen. Not that Weardale can lay claim to status as the last wild place, or presume to Dartmoor’s natural beauty. As our land becomes more crowded wealth spreads across it like a disease, but the worst effects of skin rash have not reached Weardale – not yet.

So that jaded virginity, or accident of chaos, or fate, has led me to settle here, amid the ghosts of a millennium and more. For near to twenty years now it has been my home. I have put down roots; strange to me, in the soil of so much history I may never have time to tell it all. Once and again, though, I may risk boring you with Weardale tales, and I hope you will tolerate my slavish devotion to this place.