This will mean little to most, if not all of you, but Hobgoblin Music in Wadebridge is closed. It was a lovely little shop filled with conventional instruments, but giving space to a few unusual ones. It has been replaced by a shop selling prefabricated “antiques” and synthetic humour on coasters, usually of the 1950s over coiffed kind, or monochrome piss takes on men. They will do well enough in a tourist town.
Enough of that.
I bought all of my strings and my “idiots guide to banjo playing“ books from Hobgoblin in Wadebridge. The old chap, with a truly marvellous beard, once showed me all of the details of restoring an old banjo that you may read about one day, I have it in a book I have on the rails. He let me mess about with a hammer dulcimer I really intended to buy one day – but I never quite got around to it. Dream on now.
There are other Hobgoblin music shops around the country, although not that many. And none where I could walk in, chat for a while and leave with a g string and feel I was welcome. And now it has gone. I can’t put into words how sad I am, although this is my attempt.
I never knew his name.
Last month’s competition, set and judged by Bazbaron, was to write a 350 word story opening. Reading the entries, and then reading Baz’s feedback, really made me think. In the brief before we submitted our pieces, he said, ‘I’ll give you 350 words to hook me.’ The one he quoted (Fatherland, by Robert Harris) had ‘mood, place, time, senses, character even a hint of backstory.’
At the close, before Baz gave his feedback on each piece, he said he wanted to be ‘grounded’. He explained that he wanted to know who was talking, when and where they were, whether the chosen words reflected the tone, and what he (as a reader) felt. To this list, I would have added – the reader needs to be forced to ask a question (one that will make them read on).
I must admit I was, at first, slightly taken aback by some of the opinions Baz gave in his feedback. But, come on, we all want honesty, don’t we? For example, he said Philippa’s story had a false start. ‘No,’ I thought, I like that beginning. It intrigued me. It made me ask questions (Why the gap? Why the hopeless hoping?)’ (Well it would have done if I hadn’t already known what Philippa’s story was about!) But when I looked back, even within her 350 words, Philippa had written ‘It isn’t where this story begins.’ So perhaps Baz had a point.
For me, the success or otherwise of the ‘hook’ is here: does this opening make me ask questions (or a question) to which I just have to have an answer? If ‘yes’, I will read on.
Emma Darwin says there needs to be an instability at the opening of a story, something that makes us know that something has to happen. She also says that readers are drawn in by ‘otherness.’
http://thewritepractice.com/first-page/ says your first page needs to create tension; reveal the core of your character – and your book; and (yes, Baz!) ground your reader.
Just for fun, I looked at a few openings.
Behind the scenes at the museum by Kate Atkinson
Who – a just-conceived baby.
Where – well, in utero! But also – Above the Shop.
Question: why is there soon no appropriate maternal noun for the MC’s mother?
Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor
Who – a girl being sick. She left home secretly.
Where – on a boat from Ireland to England.
Question – is she leaving for the reason I think she is? What’s going to happen to her in England?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Who – a man and a boy
Where – cold, dark night, in the woods under a tarpaulin, with stinking robes and blankets
Question – why are they in the woods with stinking blankets?
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
I’m going to quote from this one because it really grounds the reader!
‘London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise longue...’
The rest of the paragraph describes the room and its contents. And ends with…
‘and Fiona was on her back, wishing all this stuff at the bottom of the sea.’
The who and where and when are clearly stated.
Question: Why does Fiona wish it all at the bottom of the sea?
These are just a few musings. What do you think the opening page of a novel has to have/has to do? Do you need to be as grounded as Baz does, or is it enough to be intrigued?
(Thanks to Baz for a thought-provoking competition and some even more thought-provoking feedback!)
The third in a new series of puppet-animations about the life and
misadventures of an ordinary (but rather hirsute) GP.
Mrs Hattersley wants to reorganise Dr Hairy's surgery to make it more Feng Shui. When he refuses to allow her, she decides to report him to the QCQ. In the meantime, Grabber is anxious to try out his new app, LifeTunes - with hilarious consequences!
Dogs bite. Lesson learnt. Tying a jingly pink rabbit toy to a piece of string and whirling it round my head seemed like a good idea at the time. Well, that was until my rather mad rescue dog, Jess, clever little girlie, took a short-cut and tried to get the toy at the source. Which was unfortunately me. What big teeth she has and what a lot of blood and bruising I've got.
So, a beer is needed, we thought. Settled in the local bar, a friend hoves by and I tell her my plight.
'At least get a tetanus jab. You must do it and do it now.'
The Centro de Salud is open. Oh good grief! My Spanish will be tested.
'Where are your papers?'
'We don't have any.'
'Then we can't see you.'
A memory pops up. Didn't we take photos of our papers? Goody. There they are. They have trouble with my name but find me on their system. The Spanish nurse has the equivalent accent as a Geordie and I struggle with speed of words and gentle lisping.
'Whose dog is it?'
'OH! Your own dog bit you?' She wacks a load of antibiotic cream on the wounds. 'Not allergic, are you?'
'When was your last tetanus jab?'
'Twenty-five years ago.'
'Why did you have it then?'
'Well,' and I hesitate, 'that was when the last dog bit me.'
'Not much luck with dogs then.' She doesn't laugh. 'Brexit, eh?'
What can I say. Good luck with Gibralter? I hope we don't go to war over 'the rock'.
I tell her, 'I am European.'
'Yes, but you're not Spanish.'
I think that says it all.
Survived El dia del Senor. Well, there goes at least half of the town's budget on fireworks. Absolutely magnificent. Rockets galore, like being catapaulted back into World War One, shock wave after shock wave reverberating through your ribcage. Smoke obscuring the main road. At least no one lost a leg this year.
Wrong night, one might say, for a birthday party, with the whole town out in its finery. Every bar rammed to the gunnels and spilling out onto the streets. Who wears stilletos on cobbles? But wine was drunk, cake eaten and candles blown out. Then back out into the haze for more bangs and a cricked neck. Many 'Ooooh's' and 'Aaaah's' later, the realisation that the torch was still on the table at home.
Walking home along a rock strewn dirt track in the dark, with only stars and Jupiter as guides, the wind was warm but strong enough to blow the hair from my face and tug at my scarf. Oh but the haunting sounds from the town brought on that wind, as El Senor (Christ) was hefted on his podium by brawny men's shoulders to visit every tiny street and square, where more fireworks were sprayed into the sky, accompanied by a strange mournful and rhythmic music.
I had to keep looking back. The sensation of being followed, if only by a belief.
Home again. A golden light on the kitchen wall shining through the oleander bushes. Welcome nips and jumps from the rescue dogs. The dogs' ears are like those men on gun ships, directing Harrier Jump Jets with flags. There's semaphore in those big, flappy ears. The message isn't happy and we all know it will last all night.
There's been a few pops and bangs this morning but not enough to make the dogs howl. We have a reprieve until the next celebration. For a while, we can simply stare at the night sky and feel blessed.
Aonghus woke. He stretched and yawned and looked around
Haunted by a thought unfound
Donned his jeans, his boots, his cardigan,
Then remembered the bottom of his garden,
And went to check the spot he’d meant to be a meadow fine
Only to see the havoc wrought by the heedless dandelion.
The humble dandelion, so frail, so small
Yet lord of all
Growing, growing, ever growing
Its many seeds forever blowing,
Yellow starbursts everywhere
In clumps, singly and in pairs,
And then he heard to his amazement and despair
The gentle whispering of dandelions in prayer
Countless flowers ever bending
Countless muted voices never ending
‘Thanks, oh great and fearsome master,
For giving us such fertile pasture!
And please protect us from the raging heat, the winds that blow,
The icy frost, the gusts of snow!’
While he stood there, breath bated
Endlessly they supplicated.
But towards what goal? What grand direction?
This pious tide of golden genuflection?
To please their lord, to please their Aonghus?
He raised his head and laughed like Ghengis
At that little yellow flower,
Which had eclipsed all in fecund power,
Begging for his aid.
The dandelion! A common weed!
Expecting him to pander to its every need!
He – a man of intellect and vision,
A creature of such comprehensive erudition!
He the gardener, they the flowers,
Yet they solicited his powers,
What man possessed of countless books, a fine TV,
The best of any recent series on DVD
Would waste his hours in such a spot,
Tending to mere weeds, till red and hot?
He mused: ‘I left this patch fallow as I recall. It was so long ago
Never touching it with spade or rake or hoe,
So that the weeds might prove their worth
– or so I thought – by flourishing on such neglected earth!
Yes, I left untouched this corner here
Sometime in January of last year,
So that nature’s weeds might fend for themselves, just I have done,
(although they are many, and I just one).
Is not that the wonder of any weed?
That it does no gentle nurturing need?
Does not the prickly cactus sprout from arid sand,
Without the intercession of a gardener’s hand?
Of sun and water and soil they have their fill,
And yet they seek the gardener still!
They fight with other weeds for room,
And flourish only so the daisy and the thistle cannot bloom,
Yet never see what is so obvious to I,
That they are born to fight, to thrive, to die.
Aonghus could bear no more
He looked down at those many dandelions so small
So lately grown, so soon to wither in the fall
Had flower failed the gardener? Or the gardener the flower?
His lot to let nature take its course – or to exercise his power?
He didn’t know. He couldn’t decide,
And so he turned away and sighed.
Every now and then I try to understand what goes on with creative thinking. Here’s the latest attempt at putting it all together.
The world is full of objectified thoughts. Buildings, streets, fields, farms, none of these occur in nature but are thought into existence by humans. Similarly, books, films, songs and paintings are products of thinking. They originate inside us and manifest outside. Well, let’s reverse the process. Let’s track the process back and find out where it all starts.
When not overtly creative, we still do a great deal of externalised thinking. In every conversation, we clothe our thoughts in words – quite a mysterious process when you think of it – and speak the words out to the world, maybe to other people, or maybe just to ourselves as we wander round the kitchen deciding whether to have a coffee or a tea.
So far so objective, but let’s have a think about that tea-or-coffee decision. Do we really ask ourselves out loud: “Come on, Me, is to be a coffee or a tea?” Occasionally perhaps, but other times it might be just a grunt: “Uhh, tea.” And yet other times, the words may be entirely internal: Hmm, tea? Coffee? Dunno, maybe water. But – and here is the big point – we frequently don’t use words at all.
We simply visualise the drinks and decide which feels more attractive. Actually we don’t even do that: we experience impressions of them. Tea – good old standby, dobble of milk, oodles of refreshment. Whereas coffee – more bite, darker, better for grabbing and giving you a good shake.
Notice I’m translating these impressions into words. That’s what writers do, they translate. And it’s cheating. If we take writers seriously, we believe that humans are forever soliloquising. No, we’re not: far too much effort. Impressions are much easier.
Let’s try some other thoughts. Say I’m looking for my glasses. Did I leave them in the bathroom? Bedroom? I could go striding from room to room, and, if sufficiently exasperated, probably would. But the easier option is to check those places in the mind’s eye and see if any memory gets jogged. Bathroom – how about the window ledge, the surface by the sink, the clutter beside the radio? Let’s try the bedroom – what about the bedside table, the desk, under a pile of clothes? And so on, till I remember what I did with the wretched things. (Hanging round my neck.)
Once again, I had no need of words (beyond “dammit” or “bugger”) but how did I visualise the locations? Full photographic detail? Or a sort of swimming effect, more settled at the centre, blurred at the sides – like trying to see a face in your mind’s eye. Easily done till you try to focus on details, then they melt. Impressions again.
Now, the key thing about impressions is they form a link between the conscious and subconscious minds. A good example is trying to remember a word. We know the pesky thing is there, but will it come to mind? We can almost sense the shape of it, the feel of it, even the oomph of it, but no, it won’t come.
And then it does.
How does that happen?
Like this: we switch off the conscious mind, think of something else, and let the little filing clerks in the subconscious trot along with the requested item.
But how weird is that? It’s almost as weird as our need to sleep every night, which, of course, is the biggest switch off of all – barring death. Every night we let the conscious mind dither, dwindle, snuffle and snore – till the mighty, mysterious subconscious can take over. And if we don’t, we’re in trouble. Get ill, maybe die.
So let’s look at this all powerful monster, the subconscious, starting with those strange phenomena on the verge of sleep, that half-awake-half-asleep state where we perceive all sorts of detritus floating in and out of perception. Sights, actions, sounds, songs, music – all unconnected, like a session of drunken channel-surfing.
Maybe we perceive, say, a car riding over a bridge, a market stall loaded with fruit, a cloak-wrapped figure, a child skipping along – one disconnected impression after the other. We might also get nonsense phrases: “the pink of robotics... armature sledging in Cambodia... four carrier-bag Houdinis...” and so on. A musician, more attuned to sound, might notice melodic impressions, or atmospheric noises, or grating effects.
Eventually, we sleep and the disconnected impressions can join themselves into dreams. The car that rode the bridge might crash into the barrow of fruit, the cloaked figure might hurry forward and scoop up the trotting child. However, the stories rarely sustain themselves, and just as we hope the child might escape, the action morphs into a common room full of students, or some half familiar hills we stride along.
The point is we are unstoppably, relentlessly creative, our minds churning away, a constant river of reassembly and invention. And what the mind works on, of course, is the world. Theoretically, everything we have ever experienced gets swallowed and reorganised, ready to re-emerge whether bidden or unbidden.
When we write creatively, it is bidden. There we are, wanting to send our investigator into his great bathroom crisis (he’s searching for the victim’s glasses: on the window ledge, surface by the sink, the clutter by the radio – but there’s a murderer in the heating cupboard), and we have a great gush of images in our subconscious, just waiting to come out and cram the story.
Of course, we’ve got to control the process. So we navigate the flow. We ride the mighty currents in our swirling coracle, frequently biffing and butting the river bank, but pushing off again and riding back into the surge. Now, how do we do that? How do we know where to aim as we scan the shape of the stream ahead? Impressions, of course. Specifically, impressions of life and hope.
Let’s put it this way. Whenever I ransack my memory for instances of choice I always come up with the same answer. I chose because there was life and hope in the choice. If we humans decide to go on a holiday, or buy some furniture, or write a book, or propose marriage, or embark on a career, or learn a musical instrument, or try adventurous cookery – the reason is always the same. We do it because it looks good. We envisage it, in a vague and semi-abstract way, and what we envisage seems to shine with life and hope (unless, of course, we’re feeling a bit psycho, in which case we might favour death and despair).
So it is with stories. We wouldn’t bother starting a project if it didn’t look promising. And as we get into it, the next chapter, the next section, the next scene – all these must shine to us with life and hope, even if some characters have more of a psychotic outlook. (Well, we need negatives in a story for the positives to bounce off).
And the fascinating thing is we can somehow envisage all these items in our mind’s eye, moving characters and events around like chess pieces, seeing which might fit best. We’re not dealing with tangible items here – neither tea versus coffee, nor those spectacle-concealing bathroom locations – we’re dealing with concepts. Impressions of this or that situation. It’s almost like thinking in hieroglyphics, albeit very smudgy ones. And we choose, of course, those which seem to offer most life and hope. Yay, the book’s gonna go well. And, thus enthused, we charge ahead with enhanced energy.
Now, this energy might – just might – take us to our deepest level. You see there are various qualities of output. Level one, let’s say, is junk. We’ve tried, we’ve failed. We need to switch off, sit on the sofa, stare into space, and ask the subconscious please to get itself attached because we’re direly in need of oomph.
Level two, we’re getting better, but we really didn’t switch off enough. So we have a scratch. Sigh. Wander over to the sofa, give it a vague kick. Return to the keyboard and suddenly, wham!, we’re onto level three. And the stuff is just pouring out of us. We’ve got the flow, we’ve got the oomph, and we’re directing it, navigating it. More than that, we’re lighting it.
Remember that feeling of life and hope, well we’ve got it, and we’re aiming life and hope at that keyboard, at that screen. We’ve got thoughts and impressions sorted. We’ve got the conscious and subconscious sorted. And next day we look at our work and say “I didn’t write that, did I? How could I write that?” Because we’ve hit quality. Let’s award the concept a capital letter. We’ve hit Quality.
And isn’t it interesting: we were intensely conscious whilst doing it but afterwards we can scarcely remember.
We have levels, we humans. And our deeper levels are way beyond everyday consciousness. They are also our best. They are the real Us. The real Me, real You, real We. And it’s scary that these levels are so inaccessible. And it’s glorious that they’re so paradoxically accessible. We can hit them every day if we’re on form.
There is no one on Earth – absolutely no one – who is as good at being you as you. And there is no one on Earth – absolutely no one – who is as good at being me as me. We’re total geniuses at being ourselves. Sack the million monkeys with typewriters, they’ll never get close to human capacity.
Okay, should we go for a big ending now? (Reader advisory: the following paragraphs contain unsubstantiated assertions.)
Let’s put it this way: thus do we create the world afresh, its stories, its sculptures, its architecture, its cities and provinces, thereby contradicting entropy and building up the world of thought, infusing and nurturing it with life and hope.
Or shall we put it like this: thus do we come to write our most significant story, that of our own life. And the pilot who guides this narrative – the head-and-heart, conscious-and unconscious navigator – is our own mysterious, often forgotten, but always available, soul.
Or shall we say: thus do we echo with our limited humanity the first-cause-creativity of Divine Mind, privileged to join, in howsoever small a way, the cosmic project of mirroring back the Original Perfection till all Creation shares in its Power and Exhilaration and Love.
Or perhaps we should go for a smaller ending: that guy in the heating cupboard, we really do need to let him out.
Yep; the PM has done the deed. Signed, sealed and delivered the letter.
2 years of negotiations, or would that be bun fights, and once again the country strikes out on its own.
I read some of the comments by the readers on certain news articles. Well, what can one say. Poles apart and handbags at dawn - or should that rather be at midday.
How will this all pan out for the country? Only time will tell.
PS: See link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/29_03_17_article50.pdf