Monday, October 31, 2005

We raise our hats to the strange phenomena

I really think our culture would benefit from celebrating Halloween properly. Not all this plastic pumpkin crap but I mean a festival of darkness for the grown-ups like the Day of The Dead or the Venice Carnival, where we all get dressed up, preferably masked and explore the side of us we usually keep under the bed.

In Whitby we've just had Goth weekend. Currently the town is swarming with folk of all ages (about sixteen to sixty-five), some in full Victoriana, others in rubber, PVC and leather, most men and women wearing
some sort of corset.

I do think it is notable that the Goth movement only really sustains itself in rather repressed teutonic cultures like our own, Germany and Scandinavia. Cultures where we actually
have something we keep under the bed. I like the Goths a lot. I don't know any other subcultures that can take over a small Northen seaside resort for two weekends a year without such as a murmur of local opposition. Plus some of them are hot.

The people to whom Halloween or
Samhain really belongs are folks like Marit over at Baba Yaga's Hut who has carved the most beautiful jack o' lantern I have ever beheld. She also offers advice on Scrying, whatever that is. Marit is a great artist you ought to check out.

As for myself, the only ‘supernatural’ phenomenon I am forced to entertain is the idea of some sort of psychic communication between us. There have been some rigorous experiments that seem to suggest that this exists – not in the sense that you and I could communicate through thought alone, but that sometimes it is possible to transmit information, particularly emotional information, between ourselves. I mean we are well aware about sorts of energy which we can’t see, hear or feel; radio waves, radiation etc. So despite my otherwise materialist worldview, I don’t think it is beyond the realms of possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Most people have many examples of when they happened to feel a sudden urge to contact someone at some random yet subsequently crucial moment. I have loads of such incidents, especially involving my family and closest friends. The most profound one within our family was when we were quite small and one weekend my Dad decided to visit my grandparents by himself. At this time, we saw a great deal of my grandparents and Andrew who was living with them at the time. We usually walked round there together, Dad never went by himself, but today he decided to do this and to go by car. He didn’t bother phoning before he went either, which my Mum thought very odd behaviour.

When he turned into their road, he was greeted with the sight of my granddad, his hair and shirt sticky with blood, standing in front of his car, my uncle Andrew behind the wheel. Andrew’s learning difficulties were so profound that it seems unlikely that he would have been able to make the car go forward, but if he had, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to stop it (if in this disturbed state it would actually occur to him to do so). My Dad managed to intervene, get Andrew out of the car somehow. I think this episode began one of Andrew’s periods under section. As I have explained before, the medication Andrew took for epilepsy and other medical conditions would send him rather loopy at times. He was no worse than a stroppy child, only he was the size of a man and as such became an unwitting danger to other people. My Granddad wasn’t badly hurt, only it was a scalp wound so had bled profusely. However, without my Dad turning up on this random visit, it could have been a lot worse.

As for ghosts, well almost all ‘hauntings’ are supposed to be connected to fairly dramatic events. It occurs to me that if there is some form of transmittable emotional energy as I describe, then there is no reason why these things can’t leave their mark on a place – rather like radiation. Souls haven’t returned to haunt a place, only the place remains ‘charged’ with what happened there.

However my most vivid and inexplicable first-hand ‘ghostly’ incident doesn’t really comply with such a theory. It happened one Sunday morning when Mum and I were walking to my other grandparent’s house. We had just begun to worry about my Grandad Wellfare’s failing health. Both my mother and I were very close to Granddad.

The people who lived on the end of our road were Catholics and often had coffee mornings and other meetings round at their house, so there were often a number of cars parked near the end of the road. Today I noticed that there was a very old fashioned looking car parked really close to the corner of the road – dangerously so really. I don’t know much about old cars, but it was very much the shape of a black cab. And it was black, but it wasn’t a taxi. In the passenger seat there sat a woman in late middle age. She was dressed in black, but in a quite old-fashioned formal way with a hat, and a lacey white color. As we passed, she smiled very broadly and waved, which I didn’t think much of because my Mum was always bumping into people she knew and I didn’t. I smiled back and when we were round the corner and a little way up the road I asked, “So who was that?”

“You didn’t see her too?” Mum said in surprise.

“The lady in the car, right?”

“Oh. That was my Grandma Wellfare.”

I don’t need to tell you that my great Grandmother had been dead for some time at this point. I was then sworn to secrecy on the matter, which I guess she’d probably let me off by now. What followed was a very painful period for us all; my Granddad had pancreatic cancer which carried him away within the space of a few months (an extremely santitised version of events). Yeah, I know. Well it wouldn’t be a spooky story if I included the rational explanation.

Now for some real horror, today I have been revisiting The Kick Inside by Kate Bush and singing along. Ooh, let me grab it, let me gra-a-a-ab your soul away-ay-ay...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Get Well Soon Card

One crap thing about being chronically ill is that nobody ever sends you a Get Well Soon card, even when you're much worse than usual. So I thought I would send out my Get Well Soon wishes to everyone who is having a hard time with their health just now. Get Well Soon everybody!

Special mentions to the following ailing blogpals:

Marmite Boy has been having a great deal of trouble with his sleep, fatigue and anxiety. Good news is that preliminary tests suggest he is still alive. Another thing on his side is that Marmite is very high in B vitamins - as I am sure every malnourished vegetarian knows. Even so, he has not been having a good time of it recently and I'm sure we all hope they get the bottom of the matter and that Marmiet sees some improvement very soon.

I don't know what Vaughan looks like, but I know he shares his birthday and his literary genius with the great Raymond Chandler (and almost certainly smokes a pipe) so thus he shall be represented. Vaughan is a very talented writer, but he is perhaps unlikely to produce lines the like of "
She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket." or "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window." However, Raymond Chandler also wrote, "The more you reason, the less you create." which is perhaps more poignant. Perhaps.

I don't know what Kerry looks like, but I know she has red hair and thus is represented by Rita Hayworth. Kerry has had a really rough year, her mobility having dramatically deteriorated, experiencing new levels of agony, increasingly pessimistic prognoses, having to manage a wheelchair for the first time whilst, often quite literally, juggling two very small children. Plus having to deal with a great amount of aggravation with doctors and nurses, both those treating her and those working alongside her. Kerry was last seen in the blogsphere at the beginning of the month. Hope things get easier soon.

I don't know what w1ldchild looks like but she is a Blade (Sheffield United supporter). Now there was another Blade who was a vampire-slayer. Like Buffy. So for our purposes w1ldchild shall be represented by Sarah Michelle Gellar. You know it makes sense. W1ldchild has been having a lot of difficulty lately with her meds, depression and pain. Hope that everything stabilises real soon.

Adrian has earned temporary crip status having had an ear infection and thus has had impaired hearing since the end of his and my sister's honeymoon in August (although this picture suggests that the problem began when he was very very small indeed, no bigger than my thumb). This may have its advantages, but is no laughing matter for a professional musician, so we hope he gets better soon. Give that man a blue badge! But aren't I going to have cute nieces and nephews? I can't wait <----- subtle hint

Other people who desserve a mention are Timmargh who has the least attractive and perhaps most painful foot in Christendom, Eliza who we haven't heard much from since she last got screwed and Damon who has had months of discomfort with gout. But also a big Get Well Soon to everyone who just happens to be having a rough day today.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

In trutina mentis dubia, fluctuant contraria

Like Timmargh, I have got new headphones. Unlike Timmargh, I don't know much about them, I just ordered the ones from Argos that looked most like my old ones that got broken. Like Timmargh, I tested them with Paranoid Android by Radiohead. My other two reference songs were Voodoo Child (slight return) by Jimi Hendrix and then the entirity of Carmina Burana performed by the bunch of Slovakians (I dunno, it's a Naxos recording).

I also ordered a toilet seat, which is not as nearly as exciting as the one we had to send back that had the term "toilet seat" in several different languages on the box. Siège de toilette, asiento del tocador and sede della toletta all sound like either something you'd want to eat or someone you'd want to go to bed with. I wanted one of those clear plastic seats with barbed wire embedded in it, but [...] insisted we go for a boring wood one. There is an entire shop dedicated to Fun Loo Seats, but there's all extremely expensive.

Today has been a better day for me although I'm not sure what I did with it. The weather is looking grim. The sky is the colour of flint, except for a strip of creamy white around the horizon. The cloud is also very low in the sky. What do you reckon to the chances of rain?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Excuse me while I kiss the sky

Look up everyone! All the hours I spend staring at the sky doing nothing are paying off today as hundreds of birds have chosen today to migrate south. I don't know what sort of birds they are because they're just vaguely geometric shapes in the sky. But lots have gone over. So if you live south of me, look up!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Sit down funny face, Oh let your laughter fill the room

People say The Wrong Thing a lot when attempting to make me - or perhaps themselves - feel better. Look on the bright side; at least you don’t have cancer. It's probably just this time of year. We all have our cross to bare. They're bound to find a cure for it soon. You’ve got your whole life in front of you.

So today I got to talk to my friend Pete. As in Whitby Pete not Mad Pete Mentalas - although this Pete is also a proud member of the great unhinged. He lives in Whitby, but I haven’t been able to see him since the end of August. We rarely talk on the phone because he doesn’t like phones and usually we can get together at least every couple of weeks and exchange e-mails in the meantime. However, today we did talk and he came up with the best response I have ever received about my health;

Pete: You’ve really been through the mill this past couple of months, haven’t you?
Goldfish: I suppose I have rather.
Pete: You poor dear. Well, I suppose you must try to look on the bright side. After all, if you were a horse, they would have had you shot.

Having mentioned the Pete down South, he sent me the greatest Van Morrison link last week which I meant to pass onto your good selves
I suppose you have to know and love Van Morrison (for to know him is to love him) to appreciate it, but if you do check this out. I recommend Ringworm in particular.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Twiddley dee, twiddley diddley dee

You're going to hate me for this but I have been very bored and Lady Bracknell, despite holding an account with Mssrs. Scrooge & Marley, started it. I have begun my Christmas shopping and here are my top ten Christmas gift suggestions (at least for this week).

If you have to buy soap for your Granny buy Karma from Lush for the admittedly extortionate price of £2.75 for 100g (that's me admitting it, not them). Totally cruelty-freem full of natural goodness and in this case suitable for vegans, this is the most delicious smelling soap in the whole wide world. They have loads of other groovy, gorgeously scented stuff. Oh and black toothpaste. Very dear though.

Draw me a sheep! If you are going to give a book as a gift, your best bet is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry at £4.79 (or Le Petit Prince depending on your loved-one’s command of the French Language). It may be a little twee, but it is unchallenging, short, suitable for all ages and genders and is quite quite beautiful. If you have not read it yourself, buy two copies. In fact, buy several copies and hand them out to strangers on public transport.

If you are going to give a CD as a gift I suggest Tea For The Tillerman by Cat Stevens for £4.99 on a similar principle. It is a fantastic album, one of the best ever, but is totally inoffensive to almost all musical tastes. You may remember it was listed as number two in My Top Twenty Albums of All Time and although that list may have changed dynamically since April, Tillerman is still way up there.

Are you friends with a Science Fiction fan? Do you find the pressures of being his or her only friend a little too much to shoulder? Then what a greater gift could you give than everything they need to double the size of their social circle? Mr Potatohead Stormtrooper is cheap at the price of £9.94.

There are no small yappy dogs among my circle of friends but if there were, I would surely ensure that they were kept both warm and stylish this winter with this cuter than cute jumper from Accessorize at £10. They have a lot of cute stuff there - check out the Christmas decorations for the stripey camel as well.

Do you have a family member who is a brass player? Is by any chance their surname Kelly? If so, what better than an acrylic mouthpiece from Kelly's Mouthpieces for between 19 and 34 dollar (£10-20) depending on your instrument. From my cornet-playing days (make that
minutes) I know that metal mouthpieces are cold and generally rubbish. Acrylic is of course a superior material, plus these mouthpieces are available in a variety of transparent and solid colours – even glow-in-the-dark!

This is a very useful item, but not just as a Cookery Book Stand. At just £13 it would also be indespensible as a way of reading open textbooks or other heavy documents whilst keeping one's hands free (for example whilst typing essays or supporting oneself in a reclining position). I wish that I had one of these when I was a student. This one is particularly attractive and is a Fair Trade item. Do buy Fair Trade wherever possible. Please.

If you want to buy your friends and family really useful presents you need to get over to 7 Day Shop
where you can buy anything; ink cartridges, blank CDs, memory cards, camera bits. Stuff like 17m x 35mm of Ilford HP5 400 film for just £14.95. But you heathens just wouldn't understand that sort of thing, would you? Adrian understands.

Teenager to buy for? No idea what young people are into these days? Thinking of given them money again? Well don't! As anyone knows, teenagers care for nothing more than the Third World. Being universally anti-materialist, they are likely to spit on your gift of money and call you a capitalist pig. Or at the very least, they won’t write you a Thank You note (have they ever?). So spend whatever funds you were budgeting for them on resources for people less fortunate than themselves at Oxfam Unwrapped. This goat will set you back £24 but gifts start from £6 (for 100 school dinners... presumably Jamie Oliver wasn't involved).

And finally... everybody needs a clockwork penguin. It's only £1.25
. Hawkin's Bazaar is a fabulous shop. You can get all sorts of little bits and bobs and funny things. Oh go and have a look yourself. It's ace.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Great Escape

Today we had a grand adventure! It was really the last available window of opportunity to go and see the Picasso & Matisse Exhibition at Nunnington Hall so we went. We first planned to go at the beginning of September when it started, but we have had to postpone and postpone again up until today. This morning I was rather crap but when I eventually came round I felt brighter than I had since the beginning of last week. Then today I finally got a reply from my e-mailed request for information and learnt that the Exhibition was on the top floor. Then [...] fell asleep after lunch so it wasn't looking hopeful. However, he woke up a bit and we decided to go for it anyway, although this delay meant we didn't arrive until a quarter past four and they close up at five.

The trip there was rather fantastic. The brilliant purple has all but gone out of the heather but now the moor is like the hide of some enormous animal, with patches of russet where the purple was and patches of tawny where the green was. And then there's the trees of course... It was a fairly sunny afternoon and everything looked glorious. I always think that if I should ever start believing in God again it will happen in the autumn, because you really couldn't design it more beautifully; the way that bits of the trees change colour at different rates and the red and golden colours that different trees turn are more various (and yet miraculously co-ordinating) than all the greens of summer. Plus all the textures; softness and roughness and brittleness. And this at a time when everything is dying.

Anyway, the National Trust staff were excellent. The National Trust ladies had a long involved discussion about which flight of stairs we ought take. Somebody joined us to make the journey up the stairs with a chair (a normal chair, not the wheelchair). I managed okay, a flight at a time with rests in between, I can do that just about. We then had fun moving said chair from vantage point to vantage point around the exhibition.

The Exhibition (of lithographs and etchings) was just great. It might not have been all that good, but I was really terribly excited to be there, to be out, to be doing something I had wanted to do and had pretty much given up on doing. I was surprised to find the Matisse more powerful than the Picasso, although I much prefer Picasso’s actual paintings over Matisse's. There is equal doses of humour and anxiety in Picasso’s work and as a woman, I kind of pity his confusion. He seems to suffer for it.

Matisse drew some beautiful women, but women as human beings. Beautiful, sensual, stylised human beings, but human beings nevertheless. But some of the lithograph portraits in this exhibition, however simplistic, were alive. It really was as if the energy of these people – Matisse and his subjects - was just radiating from the walls. I am not very articulate on the subject of art so I’m going to shut up now.

In other news I am teething. I assumed, as you would in my advanced years, that I had finished growing teeth long ago. But no, I've got another one coming up now and it's quite irritating. Hopefully it will sort itself out as I don't have a dentist.

Probably back into the shit tomorrow, but today I am okay and I got to see this exhibition which I imagine will keep me buzzing for some time.

Monday, October 17, 2005

And you see you're really only very small

I had forgotten why I tend to get so miserable directly following relapse. Now I remember. I cope with the down time (that was my version of coping, by the way) because I know things will improve. They do improve, but they never improve enough. A few days after feeling like this, the brain has gone again, the pain is worse because I’ve been more physically active in the interim and I still have the cold that I started with over six weeks ago. In a few days it will be better again. And then it will be worse. And if I plan anything for a particular time on a particular day the chances are against me being able to do it because, however much I rely on the personal delusion that I have more good periods than bad, this just isn’t true.

This is a pretty terrible conclusion to come to, but there is a point of view that says it doesn’t matter if most of my life is a fog or discomfort, so long as I get enough joy out of the good times to last me. Only I’m not sure I buy into that. Or perhaps I am yet to adapt to living like that. My expectations are always placed a few notches above what I actually manage to achieve, but I don’t know how to bring them down any lower. I don’t know how to live with the assumption that things are not going to get any better. Then I would be no use to anyone. At least like this I can remain engaged with the world, even if it means letting the world down on a regular basis.

Actually, this is bollocks. I haven’t really let the world down, just some of it and then only slightly. This is just those little imps coming out to torment me. Why is it that depressive thoughts always appear like some great revelation? Suddenly you’re convinced that when you felt all right you were deluded. But you’re weren’t at all; you were all right until the tiny green bastards started planting ideas in your head.

There is probably a chemical explanation as to why, following a period of significant illness with resultant exhaustion, heightened stress and inactivity, I am not thinking happy thoughts. I am exhausted, I am frustrated. I am finding it difficult to fill the time because I can’t do many of the various things I enjoy doing. Progress with my book, my big project, my raison d'être is deathly slow. I want to give money to help the survivors of the South Asian Earthquake, but I don’t have much money – then again, relatively I am very wealthy and spend a fortune on unnecessary things – so this whole camel through the eye of a needle crap has been going round my head all week. Our government is about to pass this bloody awful piece of legislation just because Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty wasn’t available in braille or talking book format. Oh and my headphones broke.

And just look at the list of things; hands up any other idiots who have been too tired to read a novel but have been spending their time considering the arguments of Isaiah Berlin? Hands up anyone who gave to the earthquake appeal and spent more than a few seconds working out how much they were prepared to give and where their financial responsibilities lay in an international context? Who, during an ordinary phone call to their mother on a Sunday afternoon, having spent most of the day lying down doing nothing, attempts to explain the influence of Platonic dualism on the Semitic religions and what the Enigma Machine was? She did ask why the Church is so anti-sex and it struck me that dualism was a good starting point – I only really lost her around Thomas Aquinas. I can’t remember how we got onto the Enigma Machine, but I swear I didn’t start it.

So in summary, I am really okay, only my health is crap again, my mood is being dragged down with it, I am being poked and prodded by naughty imps and I can’t find the EXIT command in the Complex Yet Irrelevant Thought program (why did I even get installed with that? Most people got Common Sense For Everyday Situations or Intermediate Small Talk for Grown-Ups). Need to watch out though. Today I was looking in the cupboard and had forgotten what for and in frustration, without thinking, I slammed the cupboard door against the side of my head. It was an impulsive thing, really an accident. But it made me a little nervous of myself.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

What larks, eh Pip? What larks!

Margaret Thatcher is 80 today. More significantly, my dearest darling Mother turns 52, the genius Paul Simon is 64 and the great Nana Mouskouri (who I believe is now an MEP) turns 71. So Happy Birthday Maggie, Mum, Paul and Nana. That would be some joint birthday party, wouldn’t it? Some interesting Kareoke duets towards the end of the evening.

All these people had a great and positive influence on me as I was growing up. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister for the first ten years of my life, during which time my family were generally very hard up, my Dad was often unemployed and there was a general sense of being very close to a financial abyss. This I guess politcised me from a young age. And with there always having been a woman in the top job in the country, it didn't occur to me until a bit later on that being female was any kind of problem when it came to doing whatever you liked.

My Mum didn't do a great deal, just the usual; gave birth to me, fed and clothed me, instilled me with a sense of right and wrong, read many books out loud thus stimulating my passion for literature. Made me laugh. Stuck plasters on. Got rid of headlice. Facilitated and shared in many great adventures It wasn't much, but I suppose she deserves a mention...

Paul Simon's Gracelands has always been playing somewhere in the soundtrack to my life. As children my sister and I used to do most Simon & Garfunkel songs as duets, so hours of fun for both ourselves and the local dog population who would gather and howl below the windows of our house.

And Nana Mouskouri is my ideal of feminine beauty and charm and probably singularly responsible for the sexual confusion that dominated my teenage years. I probably exaggerate, but she is a very sexy lady and it is her birthday today so I have to big her up a bit.

It is also my brother-in-law's father Keith's birthday today so many happy returns to him.

In other news, my friend Lady Bracknell's editor received her award for being Disabled Person of the Year at the Positive Action NorthWest Awards on Tuesday evening. Previously her award was a state secret but now the news is out, I suggest we all go over to Lady Bracknell's blog and give her a pat on the back - a gentle one mind. And on the back,
not a pat on the head.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Where did your long hair go?

On Tuesday night I went a bit nuts and chopped off all my hair. Well, not all of it. About twelve inches or so, perhaps fifteen. Well it’s what you told me to do. I thought I would be sorry, but now I’m only wondering why I didn’t do it before. It doesn’t matter that I did it at twenty to eleven in the evening, with kitchen scissors, using the mirror for only as long as I could stand up, which wasn’t long. I filled our bathroom bin, which is about the size of a waste-paper basket, with hair. I should have saved it and sold it - somebody could have had a nice wig out of that. I also should have sold some of the drugs that I then proceeded to throw out in the ruthless reorganisation of the medicine drawer that followed. It wasn’t the only ruthless reorganisation that took place between twenty to eleven and about half past twelve when I finally fell asleep.

I don’t like hairdressers for three reasons. One is that you have to sit there for half an hour or so either looking at yourself in the mirror or reading a women’s magazine. I maintain a reasonably healthy self-image simply because I spend only short periods of time looking in the mirror and I never read women’s magazines. The second reason is the tipping. The system of obligatory tipping is totally dishonest; I am being cheated because the real cost is significantly more than the stated cost and the hairdresser is being cheated because really they should be paid enough by their employers in the first place, perhaps getting a tip only when they have done an exceptionally good job. The third reason is that hairdressers love my hair. I am sure that they are complementary to all their customers, but they really go on about it. Once I asked to have it cut short and the woman refused. She said I had lovely hair and she couldn’t bring herself to cut it. She gave it a trim instead. I still felt obliged to give her a tip.

It looks fine short. Of course it is somewhat asymmetrical and higgledy piggledy, but then so is so much beauty in nature (!). It feels much better and I imagine that the ends might actually dry before the roots get greasy again. I was in a rather impulsive state when I committed this deed and I only just resisted the temptation to shave my head (as 15% of you requested). That, I probably would have regretted, because of the cold and it would probably have itched after a few days.

Yesterday we went to Scarborough and had a picnic on the Marine Drive looking out to sea, which was very nice. I felt a bit ill in the car, but I was generally okay. I bought a tube of spot cream which was in a cardboard box and when I got home I found that the cardboard box was empty. I took this as a good omen, like when you have a Kitkat with no wafer in or when you get shat on by a seagull. So all is well with my particular corner of the world.

I wanted to write something serious about the South Asia Earthquake, but this morning my mind is on trivial things. Maybe tomorrow - I bet your can't wait!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


My dear friend, Mental-as-a-Fork has produced this purrrfect profile picture for me. What do you all think? My goodness I have a lot of pictures on here today.

Monday, October 10, 2005

I've got to admit I'm getting better, a little better all the time

Considering I don’t have Sgt. Pepper on CD it was perhaps a mistake to put that song in my head. I shall have to buy a copy now, dammit. When I sat my GCSE English Language exam I wrote a story that began, “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins.” and was basically the story of the girl in the song converted into prose. Don’t tell anyone - it just happened. Like when I had to label two muscles in a biology exam and the only sort of muscles I could remember the name of were the biceps. So I labelled one lot the biceps and the other lot the forceps. Come on, it sounds right, doesn’t it? Don’t even get me started on my Philosophy exam in which I managed to prove the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent creator God. Yeah I know. And then afterwards I promptly forgot how and because it was a formal university exam I didn’t get my paper back to have a look. Suffice to say that the course closed down the next year because all the faculty staff had left to join the Church. Not really.

Anyway, I am getting better. Much better. I have been keeping reasonably productive all weekend. I suddenly only need nine hours sleep in every twenty-four, which I consider perfectly tolerable. And although my brain keeps timing out every fifteen minutes or so, I have fifteen minutes! And then after a little while, another fifteen minutes! And then a bit later another fifteen minutes! And so on throughout the day. This is a good life.

I made this face (above) out of my sock and two Ibruprofen tablets. [...] still insists he's going to talk to the doctor about me - I think this may have made matters worse...

Hoping to go out tomorrow but I have to think of something fun to do. It is a beautiful day here today but it is cold. Look this (right) is my view from where I sit all day. I shouldn't show you really because I won't get so much sympathy while I'm stuck at home all the time. Obviously the weather's not always this nice. Of course currently the sun sets exactly opposite my window which is a plus. I know, I know. Sorry. In another direction I have a view of The Grand Turk which played the role of The Victory in the Trafalgar reinactment. And the railway line is also opposite my window and for some reason we've been getting steam trains all weekend. Oh and then there's the seals and the swans and everything. Okay, I'll shut up now.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Avoiding Stereotypes

I wanted to write about this because it is one area that has caused me great trouble and yet is something which people don’t often talk about when they talk about writing books. The use of a stereotype is, to me, a mortal sin of literature. This is for three reasons.

The first is a moral reason. If my main ambition in life was to change the world for the better, I would have learnt to use a .338 Lapua Magnum, but I would much rather write. And as you have probably gathered from this blog, I am hardly a convincing polemicist. So the changing the world bit has to be subtle. Very subtle.

I am an egalitarian sort and passionate about the idea that in order to fulfil oneself, one must take responsibility for the creation and maintenance of a situation where others can fulfil themselves as they see fit. One obstacle to self-fulfilment is social prejudice and naturally stereotypes contribute to this.

It may seem obvious, but the stereotypes which do the most harm are probably ones that seem either harmless or even sympathetic in the eyes of those who perpetuate them. For example, having rejected the old stereotypes about them all being sinister, predatory or even paedophilic, modern authors and film-makers don’t seem the harm in repeatedly having Gay male comic characters*. To a man they are vain and flamboyant, hilariously bitchy, shallow and promiscuous but bizarrely sensitive when their straight female friends are in trouble. Black people in American films suffered a similar fate (minus the empathy) that they’re only just getting over.

Similarly, physically disabled** people are very rarely presented as anything sinister (except as the occasional comic book villain). But it is not exactly helpful when every other portrayal is either some heart-warming tale of triumph over adversity or a straight forward tragedy. Sympathy and admiration are all very nice, but not necessarily conducive to these minority groups being regarded with respect and treated as equal.

The second objection to the use of stereotypes is simply that real life is not like that. For example I have only ever met one Gay man with truly horrendous taste in music***. The first time I listened to Pink Flyod’s The Wall, lying on the floor of my sister’s student digs, this rock masterpiece was interspersed with such gems as Brown Girl In The Rain, Mamma Mia and Lady Marmalade courtesy of her young housemate. Talk about crimes against humanity…

Okay, just a little pin-prick,
They’ll be no more
Giuchie giuchie, ya ya, da da
But you may feel a little sick.

However, sexuality does not actually dictate anything more than... well, who you might want to go to bed with. Look at the three most significant homosexuals in history: Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing. Compare to the stereotype. Compare these men to each other. Picture them doing the YMCA dance. See the problem?

The third reason is artistic integrity. Stereotypes about minority, ethnic or religious groups are often applied when an author does not know enough about what they are talking about. They are often accepted by an audience that doesn’t know what they are reading about. But is that as high as you wish to aim?

Stories that accept stereotypes wholeheartedly are usually vaguely comic. Genres of fiction often described as “Lad Lit” or “Chick Lit” about single people in their thirties, play on the ideas of men and women being members of different species; straight women all obsessed with dieting, shoes and marriage, straight men obsessed with sport, competitive drinking and sport-sex – although these are basically romances so somehow these seemingly incompatible preoccupations shift and warp such that everyone can live happily ever after. Gay men are these exotic comedic creatures described above and such authors usually adopt Queen Victoria’s take on lesbianism. In my opinion, very few of them pull this kind of thing off because anyone who convincingly complies to these stereotypes is a very irritating character and since such books rarely conclude in a blood bath, they leave one unsatisfied.

So what can we do about it? If you think about books and films which turn a stereotype completely on its head, the consequences are almost always funny. Most non-Curtis British film comedies work in this way; the former steel workers who become male-strippers (The Full Monty), a middle-aged, middle-class widow who becomes a drug-dealer (Saving Grace), the son of a miner who becomes a ballet dancer (Billy Elliot) etc. In fact, this sort of thing has been done so often now that I personally find it all a bit tedious and often quite patronising towards certain groups (chiefly all working class people and middle-aged women), but it seems to be a popular formula.

Of course there is a difference between describing a typical situation and making a caricature. For example, many corner-shops in the UK are run by Pakistani families. Statistically, most Pakistanis are Muslim. Most corner-shops are open very long hours, often seven days a week and therefore anybody running one has to have a pretty firmly entrenched work ethic. Thus, most of us don’t have to look very far around us to find a hard-working Pakistani Muslim shopkeeper. Real life is like that. Where we have to be careful is with what other attributes we might give such a person.

Personally, I am aware that I can be pig-headed on this sort of issue. When I first started on the book I heard a discussion on Open Book on Radio 4 which discussed an American phenomenon called Christian Romance. All this pappy Mills & Boon stuff, except where the heroine finds God as well as romantic love. The folks discussing this concluded that this would never work in Britain because it was fundamentally impossible to make a Church of England vicar look sexy… and I think it was the words fundamentally impossible that irritated me. I am not a member of the God Squad and I don’t have a thing for men in dresses, but I turned my romantic hero into a C of E curate and then before I realised what a stupid stupid idea that was (rather like the one about him being a crip) it became inextricably entwined in the plot. Doh!

At the end of the day, I suppose the secret lies in putting yourself deep inside the characters. Folks talk about authors having Godlike control over all events, as if they are playing with the characters like dolls. But I believe that in order to represent fictional characters realistically you have to step inside them and see how it feels. That way you know it’s all authentic, because you are authentic. There is nothing autobiographical about my book and yet every character represents a part of myself even though they are, I hope, a fairly diverse bunch. I suppose I must be immensely arrogant to imagine I have the capacity to do pull this off, but I have already suggested that writing books is insane and this is only one small aspect.

* I’m not objecting to ‘camp comedy’ or comedy as part of Gay Culture. Just the idea that homosexuality is in itself a joke.

** I talk about ‘physically disabled people’ because folks with learning difficulties and mental ill health are still often treated in a fairly appalling way in mainstream film and literature.

*** I did actually agree to marry the guy who ruined The Wall as his name was O’Kelly, thus our double-barrelled surname would have been the fantastic Kelly-O’Kelly. The other Gay man with whom I considered marriage was a chap of Egyptian origin and had the surname of Deb. So I would have been Deborah Deb. How cool is that? I was only sixteen...

Bloody hell. Did anybody read down this far? Sorry folks for the longest blog-entry in history of rambling.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Comments and Visual Impairments

I am getting regularly spammed now and it's on the increase. I can't spend all day going through and deleting every one, but I don't want to put the word verication in place if this renders the comments inaccessible to people with visual impairments, dyslexia etc. I have enough trouble with it myself. How are others finding it?

Ideally, I would password-protect the comments facility but put the password conspicuously on the blog. Unfortunately, I doubt the blogger technology will allow that, but I'm going to have a play anyway. In the meantime does anyone have any hot ideas as to how we can protect ourselves from spammers without becoming partially inaccessible?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

I am the screen, the blinding light, I'm the screen, I work at night

Today (Tuesday) has been a much better day. I feel better. I look miles better. I must admit to a morbid fascination with my ghastly appearance over the last few weeks. My self-portrait was not as far from the truth as you would like to believe. I am shocked by how white I have been and how blue bits of my face appear, like the shadows under my eyes. But today there is at least some red pigment in complexion, I am a less white shade of pale, less puffy too. My acne has calmed right down. Rare are the days when I am pleasantly surprised when I catch myself in the mirror. Today was such a day. I look like a member of the human race.

Unfortunately, I didn’t wake up until noon and then I slept on and off most of the afternoon. Thus at something past midnight I am totally disorientated and not at all ready for more sleep. However, I am fully and properly conscious. My headache has gone. My concentration leaves a lot to be desired and I have been flitting between activities. But I feel all right.

Sorry for being a right moaning-minny of late. I really don’t cope very well with this stuff. I have no grace whatsoever. Thanks again for all your support.

Update: All this having been said at 12:33am, it is now 1:15am and I need to sleep again. Ho hum. I still feel all right I am just shocked at my capacity for zeds.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Monday Monday

I am in a foul mood. I seem to be picking up but it isn’t happening quick enough. So much of the day, I am literally going round looking at hard objects with a view to knocking myself unconscious. Worry not, I am not going to do this because I know it could only possibly make matters worse when I came round, but I do not wish to be awake at the moment.

Well, at this moment it's not so bad, because my brain is kind of working. My head aches and I feel like I am looking at the screen through a thick black veil. But I get about two hours a day of this – bizarrely the first half hour of the day and the last ninety minutes before sleep (solid sleep at night that is, I sleep on and off all day). The rest is mostly an in between state where I am not actually asleep, but nothing sticks in my mind for more than a few seconds. Which wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t remember that I was thinking about something else a moment ago. I can’t read, I struggle to follow films or radio programmes. I would be better off sleeping for twenty-two hours a day. I would be better off being asleep twenty-four hours a day for a week or so or however long it takes for my body to get over this thing.

Bad things that happened today.
  1. I felt like shit.
  2. Amazon refunded me claiming my latest order was undeliverable even though they had the right address and it’s not as if I have left the house at any point during the last month. I was looking forward to this order which included the famous Skallagrigg – a book so good, I’m told, that you may want to tattoo its title to your thigh.
  3. Both bulbs in one of our standard lamps blew again about three weeks since they did this before. [...] asked me how I had turned it on, like it was my fault. This is bad. Despite my firm belief that inanimate objects have no mind of their own, I have in the past suffered the delusion that I have the power to cause electrical equipment to malfunction with my negative vibes.
  4. There was an annular eclipse – or at least a partial one in the UK but I slept through it.
  5. I am in a complete muddle as to which painkillers I took and when. I stagger the dose so it is unlikely that I should take many more than I ought to, but I hate the confusion.
  6. I read a thing about 50 years of photojournalism on the BBC News website. The photographs were pretty harrowing. I was interested in the subject matter but I shouldn’t have looked today. I shan’t link to it for this reason.
  7. It was my great uncle Albert’s funeral. I didn’t know him well and he had a decent innings, but I meant to call my Mum as he was a favourite uncle of hers and it must have been a hard day. It’s too late now.
Good things that happened today.
  1. I received a CD case in the post from Marmite Boy and two Time To Get Equal pins for us. Thanks Marmite, anyway! I have pinned mine to my trenchcoat on the offchance I may one day go outside.
  2. Angry Alien released their 30-second Bunny Re-enactment of War Of The Worlds (1953).
  3. Tesco delivered our groceries with no substitutions and so far I haven’t thought of anything I forgot to order. I do have three spare boxes of Earl Grey Tea though.
  4. When looking at eBay I found this indescribable item of clothing. I must have one now! Not! Apparently it’s genuine rabbit-fur. That was some sick rabbit.
  5. I got an e-mail from Agent Fang who I haven't heard from in ages and she sounds okay. She's moved house and only just got back on-line so I guess she'll be updating the blog soon.
  6. None of my limbs fell off.
  7. None of my vital organs failed.
  8. Nobody I know died.
  9. Ai Ai the chimpanzee gave up smoking.
So I suppose more good than bad... As I was coming round I did listen to two good radio programmes which you can listen to too if you have a decent connection. One was called Separate But Equal which was about ending segregation between black and white children in the American South. I thought that situation had very strong parallels with the situation of disabled children in the UK today. The other was called Still Here about a poet who speaks to people with Alzheimer’s Disease and talks about meaning and metaphors people come up with when they began to lose language skills. Not as depressing as it sounds and today, I related big time.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Planning

I feel vaguely human again today - or at least vaguely fish. Certainly animal as opposed to vegetable. And I was going to write about planning...

When it comes to any creative project you can name, there are some of us who plan meticulously so that everything is perfect first time and there are those that rush in and spend the time perfecting things later on. Both methods have their merits and their pitfalls. Sometimes it is necessary to do a little bit of forward planning – if you’re painting on a canvas in oils, you can paint over any mistakes, but with watercolours, slip up bad and you’re in trouble. At other times, it helps to get hands-on as soon as possible. If you have never used clay before, you’re going to have to have a few practice-runs before you get the final piece so you might as well get on and get your fingers dirty.

When P D James talks about the way she writes her detective novels, she explains that she has the whole thing planned out to the last detail before she sits down and writes. She does however, admit that even then things don’t always turn out the way she imagined. Minette Walters on the other hand openly confesses that she never plans anything and three-quarters through a book she’s writing she won’t yet know who did the murder (or whatever). The books of James and Walters are quite different – although they often appear on the same shelf in the library – and I think if you’ve read some of each author, you can probably see how each method lends itself to the sort of story each author writes, at least to some extent.

The point I’m trying to get to is that it strikes me that, when it comes to fiction, planning is an entirely personal thing. For me, I always rush in with stuff, but then there are certain points where I have had to stop and organise myself better with, for example, a timeline of events to help me keep a hold of the order of things. Next time I will probably be much more organised.

There are only a few tips I would give from my experience.
  1. Like the advert says, Just do it. There is an argument that claims procrastination is part of the creative process, and indeed there are many times where anybody else would think you are doing very little when in fact you are making leaps and bounds of invisible progress. However, for every person who has actually written a book – published or not – there are probably a hundred people who have written two pages or have this really good idea that they’re waiting to come together. The creative process – any creative process – is a bit like love. There is a certain amount of magic involved, but you’ve got to do your fair share of work in order to keep the magic going.

  2. Whatever happens you are going to have to edit and re-arrange things a little – probably quite a lot. So don’t worry about getting every word right the first time. It is far more important to believe in the characters and events you are describing. Realistically, a first draft should attempt to be a good story badly told. You can worry about the telling later. At the end of the day, people can forgive lazy, clichéed and uninspired writing if the narrative is compelling enough. Unless you are Laurie Lee or Virginia Woolf you will not get away with beautiful prose slung around a poor or non-existent story.

  3. Be prepared for the long haul. I am very fortunate in that my impairment has adjusted me to the concept of having to pace myself and achieving goals over a long period of time. Clinically, I am described as having poor mental stamina, but in another sense I have a lot. Most popular authors produce one book every year and that’s when they’re healthy people working full-time at it. So whatever your circumstances, it will take time and you need to be prepared to stick it out.

  4. When approaching the next book, I am going to keep a ring-binder containing;
  • A timeline – which I can build up and perhaps revise completely as I go along
  • Character profiles, as and when they arrive. Characters develop and change as you go along. Their names might change. Their back-story might change. Little details like what car they drive might change. It would have been so much easier if I had had this written down and not relied on my memory to keep a hold of it all.
  • Notes about research. You think you can remember it all because it seems so interesting at the time, but you don’t. Also I have discarded information thinking I didn’t need it only to find it crops up again later on.
  • Pictures. Pictures of people, places, interior design, food and anything else I think of. The novel is a bit like a dream; certain things come vividly – like the faces of my main characters. I don’t know anyone who looks like them; they are purely my invention. However, the minor characters are kind of fuzzy, certain rooms of certain buildings are vague and I am just rubbish when it comes to food.
  • Things that make me feel good about myself and my ability to write. Doubt has truly been my worst enemy throughout this exercise. Even now, despite anything I might say, my heart would give fifty-fifty odds on it never getting finished.