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.

From a Bedside Table Long Ago

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I want to share this picture with you.

I know it doesn’t inspire.  A dog-eared, thumbed-to-bits volume with its spine all but destroyed, its covers stained with use.  In resale terms it would be lucky to get a bid at an auction, or even a second glance.

Kipling’s ‘Animal Stories’ sits among the other volumes on my bookshelf.  In a day I might pass it by many times, reluctant, almost, to disturb it in its age; because once it was never given time to rest – never closed, never far from my pillow.  It taught me to read when, at maybe three or four years old I learned the first magic: it sang me to sleep when my mother read from it, it showed me pictures of other lands, other worlds for my imagination to ride upon. 

Through his pen, the writer taught me love and respect for the wild creatures around me.  He gave nobility to the elephant, cunning to the tiger, valour to the mongoose, loyalty to the wolf.  Those  creatures are as real to me now as the first evening when ‘The White Seal’ swam into my mind, or when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi first faced a cobra on the veranda of my dreams.  The simple morality they taught has lasted with me.

Upon the flyleaf of this tattered book there is a pencilled note.  It says, simply:  ‘To Joan, from Uncle,  Xmas 1935’.  Joan was my mother.

So there it sits amidst the company of its fellow volumes – some as old, some much younger than itself, evoking memories of someone passed who must, in her time, have valued it as much as I.  And it has travelled with me through my life as once it guided her through hers; and when my life closes?  Who knows what then?

The tablet of my current ‘reads’ glimmers back at me:  ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.  The pages are easily wiped across the screen, the words are any size I want, my vast library of titles has no need of shelves.  This is progress.   But they will last, these current thousand, for how long?  Their flyleaves bear no treasured mark, there is no familiar paper smell and when my tablet has run its course a year or so hence they will leave as swiftly as they came.

When we lament the passing of the printed word, you see, I believe we make a basic error – a mistake.  We revile the computer for stabbing our paper fantasies in the back when really the paper fantasies themselves sealed their doom.  The blame truly lies with the throw-away, the paperback.

In pushing up the hardback price beyond the common reader’s means publishers let paperbacks in, but more than that, they changed the role of the book in the home, in a reader’s life.  Few unbound books will survive as ‘Animal Stories’ has, or support such enticing insights into family history.   Few will live on bookshelves or decorate our homes because they simply do not look nice; they will circulate a few times, in charity shops or care homes maybe, then be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The writer’s art has become as impermanent as the actor’s.  So if you are riffling through the titles of today seeking the classics of tomorrow seek no more.  The onward march of software will leave each one behind.  There will be no survivors.