Saturday, August 19, 2017

What’s this hang-up with ‘meaning’? Might it explain by Dylan was so slow to collect his Nobel Prize. I do think it might

NB There are soundfiles in this entry which your browser might not be able to play. I don’t think Opera does well on that score. In that case, try another browser (assuming, of course, that you actually want to here the songs).

I am well aware, especially since a friend pointed it out, that the introduction to these posts can be very discursive, and it has occurred to me that not everyone might like that. I am in the habit of, say, starting a piece with a number of choice platitudes (most of which are usually cribbed from the Economist) about the danger of Trump starting a World War III over North Korea’s nuclear threats or how no one understands the worldwide implications of Guatemala’s foreign policy, only eventually within a few paragraphs to get to the main thrust of the piece, the low standard of contemporary hair conditioners or why minimalists artists always seem to come across as so small-minded.

All that occurred to me when I was considering how to get this post started. I must confess that some might well feel my approach is a more than a tad pretentious (a pretension made all the more egregious by these two rather fey opening paragraphs), to which I can only respond that I am resolved to leave no doubt on the matter that I loathe pretentiousness avec une passion sauvage. On the other hand, well, tough.

. . .

I had my first ever guitar lesson (or as my good friend Pete would point out, every first is always a ‘first ever’ so ‘first ever’ means nothing and is just a waste of four perfectly good letters which might well be more usefully employed elsewhere, but there you go. Hi Pete) last Friday afternoon. That’s not to say I have decided to learn to play guitar, because I have, in fact, played guitar for the past 54 years, although I am the first – but not only – man to admit that for far too many of those years I played with more far more enthusiasm than skill. And like too many of my ilk, I am an incessant noodler, playing a bit of this for a minute or two in this style, then long before anything can get going, breaking off and playing something else in that style, before soon losing interest and taking off in yet another direction.

I have now decided that enough was enough and that I should get a little more serious about it all and get proper tuition to become a little better rather as a mediocre tennis player might be able to improve a little by being coached by someone who knew what he (of, or course, she) knew what they were talking about.

A week or so ago, I asked Nigel who works at Craig’s Music in Bodmin who he could recommend and he said go to Paul Berrington in Padstow. Not only will he help you (he helped me a hell of a lot, said Nigel), but he’s also a nice guy. Well, I did, and true to Nigel’s prediction Paul has already helped a hell of a lot in just one lesson and even though we spent almost 9opc of the time talking music and chord theory – that is he was talking and I was listening - and hardly touched a guitar (well I didn’t). But that is only the first stage in this discourse (which I’m hoping is also the noun related to ‘discursive’).

Whenever I want to learn a song – over these past few months, these have included Cry Me A River, Julie London’s version not Justin Timberlake, or Me And Mrs Jones – these days I go to YouTube where there is any number of useful videos, and many more other useful videos just about playing guitar – Marty Schwartz of Nextlevelguitar.com is one of my favourites. Well, most recently I decided I finally wanted to learn a favourite tune of mine, Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, which you can listen to below. I found three videos, and after cannibalising them came up with a pretty good chord sequence which 1) is satisfying and 2) I can play. As always with Steely Dan the chords are not at all straightforward, although in this case they are rather less not straightforward than usual. They involve major sevenths and major sixths and ninths, and I don’t know what else, which, to my ears at least, are a damn sight more interesting than the usual G, C and D and Am, Em and Dm we all start out on.

A bonus is that if you have a certain feel for rhythm and, it has to be said, chutzpah (and I do have some of the first and a little of the second), you can play major sixths, sevenths, ninths and thirteenth or whatever chord of that kind takes your fancy in almost any order and bullshit that you are a rather competent guitar player. Certainly, a good guitar player will suss out the bullshit within seconds, but ordinary Joes will be impressed.

The point it that I know just how good I am – which is pretty all that good at all - which is why I decided the time has come to try a little harder and which is why I shall be a regular of Paul Berrington’s. And so on to the main point of this blog entry (or, if you like, after all the above discursive shite the equivalent for this particular post of why modern hair conditioners can’t hold a candle to those we sometimes used in the 1970s and 1980s): wondering why everyone seems to keen to know the ‘meaning in songs’.

. . .

Steely Dan, that is Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and their songs, I think it’s fair to say, are in a league of their own, both musically and lyrically. ‘Sophisticated jazz rock’ and ‘clever, ironic/wry and witty lyrics’ are some of the gush about their music you will get from music journalists (and mention of which – and their ‘gush’ - obliges me to repeat the quote from Frank Zappa: ‘Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read, ‘ and that pretty much hits the nail on the head.’) But the ‘clever, ironic/wry and witty’ plaudit notwithstanding, Messrs Becker and Fagen do, at least, write interesting lyrics, lyrics which are often far more interesting than many written by other songwriters.

On the other hand, I, for one, don’t think the ‘meaning’ of their songs is all that important. And sometimes (as in the case of Bob Dylan, of whom more later (©Daily Mail/Geoffrey Levy and other of the paper’s feature writers) the hunt for meaning can get very out of hand. The thing is that, at the very least, in the case of Steely Dan and Dylan, but I’m sure with other artists, too, fans want – demand - meaning. They just can’t do without it. I, on the other hand, am perfectly content with lyrics just ‘sounding good, interesting and intruguing’ and to fuck with meaning.

Becker and Fagen’s song Pretzel Logic also has ‘obscure’ and ‘wry’ lyrics, all two short verses of it and the bridge, that is, which is not a lot. And they are good lyrics. The lads themselves are quoted extensively as saying the song is ‘about time travel’. Really? My reaction to that is simply, up to a point, Lord Cooper. I don’t doubt that when they came to write the song, the notion of ‘time travel’ played a part in its genesis, and when you read the lyrics, you can see that the notion of time travel might well have been one starting point. But as to saying anything whatsoever about time travel and saying something useful, the honest observation is: bollocks. Here us the song:


Pretzel Logic


and here are the lyrics:

First verse:

I would love to tour the Southland / In a traveling minstrel show
Yes I’d love to tour the Southland/ In a traveling minstrel show
Yes I'm dying to be a star and make them laugh / Sound just like a record on the phonograph
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago, oh yeah

Second verse:

I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time
I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time
'Cos he looks so fine upon that hill / They tell me he was lonely, he's lonely still
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago, oh yeah

Bridge:

I stepped up on the platform
The man gave me the news
He said you must be joking son
Where did you get those shoes?
Where did you get those shoes?
Well, I've seen 'em on the TV, the movie show
They say the times are changing but I just don't know
These things are gone forever
Over a long time ago, oh yeah

There are various sites on the web giving ‘the meanings of songs’, and one such includes suggestions as to what Pretzel Logic means.

Songmeanings.com is useful if you are into that kind of thing. I, on the other hand am not, and I am even bemused by what I regard as an obsession to discover ‘meaning’ (and not just in songs, I should add, but here I’ll just restrict myself to songs). I am interested in how a song came to be written, what might have been in the writer’s head at the time, but I’m pretty certain a great many ‘meaningful’ words and phrase are chosen not because they mean something at all, but because they sound right at that point in the song, or because the songwriter hits upon a phrase which exactly matches the beat of the song. In the above example, explanations of ‘meaning’ and just how time travel is described in the song is a ludicrous as suggesting that the line ‘I stepped upon the platform’ refers to the singer – the time traveller who hopes to meet Napoleon – steps ‘on the platform of the time machine’.

. . .

To my mind Dylan, a great favourite of mine, suffers even more from the insistence of those who listen to his music that his lyrics, even the most obscurely outrageous must ‘mean’ something. That isn’t to say that often he is trying to ‘say something’. A good example of when Dylan was trying to describe the world and what might be going on would be Blowin’ In The Wind. Conversely, a song which might sound as though it were full of meaning could be A Hard Rain’s Gonne Fall: ‘Twelve misty mountains/six crooked highways/dozen dead oceans/newborn baby with wild wolves around it’ are all great portentous phrases and they all sound great, but do they ‘mean’ something? I don’t think they do.

Dylan himself is on record as being becoming pretty pissed of quite soon in his early days as being regarded ‘the voice of a generation’. And – this is controversial and I cannot prove it or give any supporting evidence – I suspect his silence for many weeks about being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 was a mixture of embarrassment, incredulity and honesty: he is on record as describing himself as ‘just a song and dance man’ and even though that was a lighthearted comment at a press conference, that seems to be pretty much the honest opinion of an honest man who has spent the past 58 years doing what he always wanted to do: make and play music and write songs, no less and, pertinently, no more.

That isn’t, of course, to say that there will be many of his songs which don’t have a meaning, perhaps a personal meaning, perhaps songs in which he does want to make a comment – Oxford Town, Masters Of War, from the early days are good examples. But a great many of his other songs are pretty much – well, there’s no other way of saying it – ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ or ‘folk’ songs and no more than that. But that doesn’t deter the hunters after meaning who, for example, haunt this website, bob-dylan.org.uk There you’ll find all kinds of explanations of songs lyrics as well as, I do not doubt, what the wise man prefers eating for breakfast and what brand loo roll he endorses.

Finally, though, and this for me is the clincher that often, if not always, Dylan simply wrote lines and phrases which ‘sounded right’, I few months ago, I watched a two-part TV documentary about Dylan celebrating one thing or another (in which he took part and again struck me as rather more down-to-earth than he is given credit for). In it, Joan Baez, a one-time Dylan girlfriend recalled how once on tour and they were sharing the same apartment or hotel room or something, Dylan was sitting at a typewriter writing portentous lyrics and giggling to himself along the lines of ‘they will have a great time trying to work out what this one means’.

Quite. And that last story makes me like Dylan all the more.

. . .


For comparison here are three more songs. The first is by another favourite of mine, Little Walter and his song My Babe. I can't think too many people will spend too long trying to work out the ‘meaning’ of this song. Essentially, the singer’s girlfriend won’t under any circumstances countenance the singer having sexual relations with any other women as in if he screws another woman that’s it. As lyrics go, I particularly like the completely unambiguous phrase ‘midnight creepin’.


My Babe

Then there’s Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind which I do think he wrote with something in mind, that is ‘we haven’t a clue what the future will hold’.


Blowin’ In The Wind

Finally, there’s his song Went To See The Gypsy. I heard or read somewhere that he did have a particular woman in mind who is ‘the gypsy’, but apart from that, well your guess is as good as mine. Or rather trying guessing, because I shan’t be bothering.


Went To See The Gypsy

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

More snaps from the past, rescued from Guy's House, that old, old renovated 16th-century cottage none of us knows much about.

I took a week off work last week and set about clearing what we call Guy’s House of all the shite that has accumulated there over since my father died more than 26 years ago. Guy’s House is a very and small granite cottage which was a ruin when my stepmother arrived in St Breward in the mid-Seventies. Her cottage is one of three, all part of the same structure.

My father was still married to my mother, so he was still having an affair with my stepmother, staying at her flat in South-East London during the week and often travelling down to Cornwall at weekends where she had bought her cottage. Then my mother died in 1981, and my father sold our family home pretty soon afterward and the money made from the sale went on extending the cottage, making the kitchen far bigger and above it extending the bathroom and building another room which my father (who had been working on ‘his book’ pretty much since I can remember) used for his writing. But it did not use up all the dosh.

A few years later, my stepmother’s sister, who was becoming more and more disabled bought the cottage at the end of the row (her’s was The Hollow, then there came Middle Cottage, then there was Rose Cottage, my stepmother’s where she still lives). Whoever owned The Hollow also owned Guy’s House (and, by the way, I have no idea why it was called Guy’s House and can only make the pretty obvious suggestion that at one point in its long life it was owned or at the very least occupied by a ‘Guy).

When I first saw it in the mid-1980s, Guy’s House was a tumbledown ruin, covered with ivy. When next I saw it, a few years, later (my father and I went through a period of estrangement, though I have to say it was his decision not mine, but it would be boring for you and futile all round if I went into details here) Guy’s House was transformed. It is not big, but downstairs a small bathroom with a shower had been installed as well as a small ‘wine cellar’, and upstairs, which my father used as his study were all his books in custom-made shelves along two of the walls.

When I say Guy’s House had a long life, I mean it. I have no idea quite how old it is, but it would well have been built in the 15ft century. At one end downstairs his a large granite fireplace with the usual bred ovens on either side. I should imagine that when it was occupied, and though it is small, it housed about 10/12 people because in those days privacy was not something ever expected. My father died in 1991, and since then Guy’s House has slowly been on the skids.

At first it was used as a convenient place for visitors to sleep. I’ve stayed there several times myself. But gradually over the years it became the repository of all the shite was wasn’t wanted or which was superfluous, some of it mine. When my stepmother’s sister died, her cottage was first let out as a holiday cottage, but then in 2007 my stepmother suffered her first stroke and the cottage was subsequently let out to drum up some money to pay for the care home in which she lived. Which is all fine and dandy, but why am I telling you? . . .

Well, last week, I took annual leave and set about clearing out as much of the shite as I could. And boy was there a lot of it. I was pretty ruthless, too. When you are cleaning out, there can be no room for sentiment. But among the things I found there were some a few of the pictures I took in the 1980s when I was still living in Cardiff. That was, of course, in the days before digital, and involved developing film, then printing the pictures and it was that, mucking around in the darkroom, which I liked as much as taking the pictures.

For one thing if you print your pictures, you can try and do all kinds of things with them (things you can these days do as a matter of course, such as cropping). I also used to dick around with a set of dyes, to colour up BW prints. Anyway, here are four of the prints I salvaged. The picture of the women’s legs was taken in Hamburg when I went to stay with my cousin in about 1988. The one of the incurably handsome dude in shades was taken by her and modesty prevents me from revealing that utterly cool man’s name.

The last two were taken in a nightclub or other, I forget with. I particularly liked using fast film with an ASA of 3200 to take pictures in natural light. Not only did it give nice effects, but you could take snaps of folk when they were not aware and, thus were not posing. And using flash well is also by no means easy.








And here is a link to other pictures of that era have previously post here. As for Guy’s House, when it is not occupied - my cousin, his wife and young son are staying there for a week - I shall take a few more pics to give you a better idea of what it is all about.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Old farts and why they are best avoided (at any age)

NB I’ve noticed when later reading through a blog entry I have posted that there are literals and that sometimes a thread of thought goes awry. When I read through it later, I do my best to correct it. It has occurred to me that I could always not immediately post an entry but give it a few days and then revise it. But I have decided against it, for many reasons. So if you read this bear that in mind.

Given that the readership of this blog is growing, although very, very slowly, and given that readers now happen upon these ramblings from all over the world, I fell to wondering whether there are several phrases I use, common here in Britain and Australia and possibly the US, strike some readers as baffling. By the way, I know a little about how many read this and where they live because of the stats supplied by Google. And - forgive me, please, but we are all human - I look at them pretty regularly, usually to see who has been reading the most recent entry.

That’s why I know that this blog’s readership is not necessarily restricted to family, friends and neighbours keeping a close eye on whether or not I am being indiscreet (‘What the fuck’s he been saying now? For Christ’s sakes! You’d think he could keep his trap shut just once in a while!’)

So apart from folk in the United Kingdom, the US and the usual suspects in Europe - Germany and France - who tune in (assumedly because they have little else better to do), there have also been readers - or possibly just one very enthusiastic reader - who have visited from Hungary 43 times and the Ukraine 30 times (though I should strictly call the country simply Ukraine as I understand the description ‘the Ukraine’ began life as an overly dismissive name given it by Russians).

That, to be honest, is odd enough, although given that over these past few years I have mentioned affairs in those two countries, perhaps they googled some term or other and washed up here. But even odder is that in the past week, i.e. in the past seven days, readers, or again one very enthusiastic reader, in South Korea and Turkey has come along. And not just once or twice but apparently, respectively 129 and 128 times. There were also visitors from Australia and Canada

That visitors arrive from Turkey I can somehow understand in that once or twice I have commented on the democratic principles, or, better, the increasing lack of them, of Recep Tayyip Ergdogan. But why to goodness would this blog or any of its entries be of any interest to folk in South Korea? The stats also list what particular entries have proved most popular, and they tell me that visitors have been reading entries about the former French president Francois Hollande and his complicated love life, and in the past an entry about the film and novel The Leopard and the stories and life of Somerset Maugham.

About ten months ago and for several weeks, there was extraordinary interest in this blog from Russia. Well, I am vain - aren’t we all if we are honest - but it did occur to me that it wasn’t so much Anglophiles in the depths of Siberia who were happening along but rather some bot or other had somehow latched onto my URL. I know that because the stats also give ‘traffic sources’ and ‘referring sites’, and when I clicked on them, they were, invariably, porn sites and sites promising to introduce the visitor to wholesome lasses keen to make my - or yours or anyone’s - acquaintance with a view to marriage (and, I assume, a shot at getting a Western European passport).

The pertinent thing is that Google then changed its something or other which meant bots could no longer latch on, and the visits from Russia stopped sharpish. That might indicate that the visits from South Korea, Hungary and Ukraine are bona fide arrivals. Odd. But none of that has much to do with ‘old farts’ and why it is best to avoid them, except that I was wondering what a visitor from South Korea, Hungary or Ukraine would make of the many Anglo-Saxons phrases I use.

. . .

Even if a visitor is not quite as au fait (as we Brits say, we Brits who regularly refer to a cul de sac, coup de foudre, coup d’etat and all the other French and pseudo-French phrases we have made our own) with English as she is spoken rather than as she is taught in language schools, I’m reasonably sure they can guess what I mean by an ‘old fart’. And I mention it because, strictly, I could be easily numbered in their ranks, given that I am no spring chicken and am even less likely to see 25 again than 35, 45 and, sadly even 65. But there is more to being an ‘old fart’ than age, thank goodness, which means with luck and effort those who might qualify can still do their best to delay the onset of ‘old fartdom’. I have met ‘old farts’ are barely over 40 and who would be horrified to be regarded as one. But sadly pretty much everything about them shouts out the fact.

They are the kind of people who are increasingly liable to start a sentence with ‘what really irritates me these days’, ‘what I really hate these days’ and, in extremis, ‘I despair, I really do!’ They are the kind of people who will declare when an esteemed actor, comedian, football player, politician or all-round wit or whoever dies ‘well, we’ll never see his/her like again!’ But the thing is we will most certainly see their like again, and what they say is complete
cobblers (translation ‘rubbish/bullshit’). Because every esteemed actor, comedian, football player, politician and all-round wit or whoever was once young and most certainly went through a phase of not at all being esteemed. And there will be among us today a great many such who, though not yet esteemed, will grow in stature and when they die be declared ‘a one-off’.

But there is far more to old farts than that. Old farts are forever decrying the present and extolling the past. Music, writers, films, sportsmen and woman, cars, food and, I should imagine, even cat food ‘just isn’t what it used to be’. The world for them is a far nastier place far more dangerous place today, and the number of people who can be trusted is diminishing by the hour. To be frank, and even though I say so, to my credit I have long been aware of old farts and the crap they almost always talk. But of late it has become even more disconcerting. When I was young, folk would declare about contemporary music ‘why can’t they write a decent tune any more!’

Well, I took no notice. But what really disconcerted me, and still does, is that in the Eighties those who said that would hark back to Sixties’s music. In the Nineties, they would hark back to Seventies and Eighties music, thoroughly convinced that the music ‘the younger generation’ was listening to - in the Nineties - was just so much crap. But now, dear folk, now - in 2017 - our new crop of old farts are moaning that ‘music these days is just awful. Why can’t they produce songs as they did in the Nineties!’ Give me a break, or rather, give me a fucking break! I have no doubt whatsoever that in 2027 and 2037 and 2047 music, films, fiction and the rest will be produced which will be just as interesting and just as satisfying as what has been produced and appreciated by then contemporary generations for the past 400 years.

But there is a point to all my ranting.

. . .

The other day I was chatting to my son, who turned 18 on May 25 and I told him that I believe his and his sister’s lives - she turns 21 on August 7 - will in some ways be a lot less easy than mine has been. And that is when it occurred to me that I was perhaps in danger of becoming an old fart. But bear with me.

Years ago, many yeas ago I remember talk of ‘the Baghdad Pact’ and I had - and till have - no idea what it was about or what it entailed. A little later I became aware of ‘Colonel Grivas’ and EOKA and a good deal of bloodshed in Cyprus. I didn’t regularly listen to the news - Christ, I wasn’t even ten - but I would overhear things on the radio and later TV. Then there was the financial crisis Britain found itself in when the pound was devalued, the Vietnam War and the social angst US conservatives went through when their sons and daughters (now in their late sixties and, ironically, themselves old farts), the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all the rest. And that is just


in the Western world. We didn’t have the internet then, we didn’t have live TV reports from the other side of the world, and so we - here in the Western world - had little idea of the fears and political upheavals in South America and the Far East. Yes, there were newspaper and broadcast reports, but none of it was immediate as it is now. There was then as now plenty to worry about, for everyone.

But the other day I found myself telling my son that I believed his and his sister’s lives would be rather less settled than mine had been.

For us here in Britain things really are looking rather bleak economically, and it won’t be in the short term. And I stress I am not making a political point about the rights or wrongs of Brexit and Britain’s likely departure from the European Union. The point I am making is that a Europe-wide arrangement which for better or worse and whether or not you agreed with it did bring economic stability and prosperity to many here in Europe will end.

Things are really not looking very good at all, not just for Britain but arguably also for the rest of the EU. As far as I can see it is highly unlikely any deal which will benefit Britain will be done by March 2019 and our economy will suffer. But the EU also faces its problems, not least the very odd reversal of democracy in Poland where the ruling Law and Justice party is most definitely no longer towing the liberal line which has been so prevalent so far. But there’s more to it than that, far more.

There is the problem of several hundreds of thousands of migrants from North Africa arriving in Europe, initially in Italy, but who want to get further north to taste the good life they have heard about and, I must say, who on earth in his or her right mind can blame. You and I would most certainly be doing the same thing if we found ourselves in their predicament, and bugger the rights and wrongs of ‘illegal immigration’. But that migration is not going to stop. It will slow down come the autumn and winter, but next year and the year after and the year after that it will carry on as before.

In Turkey it seems pretty obvious to me that Erdogan is shaping up to becoming an old-fashioned dictator. The US has as a president a man who, whatever his other talents (whatever they might be) is quite obviously utterly unsuited to leading his country and, to use that horrible cliche, acting as ‘the leader of the free world’. He seems to have no political talents and absolutely no ideas about what to do and, most damningly, seems uninterested in his position except in what a dash he can play around the world. And Russia and China know that.

China itself is in many ways far, far beyond the comprehension of most of us here in the West, and most certainly far, far beyond my comprehension. But crucially as under Trump the US could possibly lose its influence, China might choose try to take over its role. And unlike the US, which for all its myriad flaws (a tendency to elect the richest man in the country as president being not the least of them) is still observes the rule of law and will do so for many years to come) China has no such scruples. I think that in the 21st century and being fully aware of the benefits to itself of global trade - and mindful that it must keep its new middle class onside - it is unlikely to resort to any kind of widespread warfare, but it is really not above any indulging in any other mischief which might further its fortunes.

Incidentally, I know little about China’s history except in very broad outline, but I am sure nothing but nothing has change very much and that the period under Mao Tse Tung was nothing but an aberration, a tiny blip in history. Its leader might no longer be called the emperor, but he is there by consent and must always play his cards right to ensure his survival, as every other emperor was obliged to do.

. . .

But back to my point about ‘old farts’ and why they must always be discounted: when I write that I feel life will be a tad less comfortable for my children and their generation, or possibly worse, am I simply falling into the old trap which we late sixtysomethings are prone to do, to view the future as bleak merely because we are on the wrong side of history? I don’t know. I hope so. But am I? Certainly, I might be very wrong about many things outlined above, but I don’t think I am wrong about the very uncertain future Britain now faces.

My father was born in 1923 and will have lived through what we call the Depression. It affected many, though I don’t think it much affected him and his parents (both primary school teachers). The way things look at the moment - today, for example, Sunday, July 23 - the outlook for Britain economically is not looking at all great. Maybe the good times have rolled, at least for the next 20 years. Who knows, but don’t ask an old fart.

Friday, July 21, 2017

There can be no going back now (or at least not without looking extremely bloody stupid)

Just under a month ago, I began digging myself a hole – and did so in the full knowledge of what I was doing - by publicly declaring in this blog (the entry is here) that I wanted finally to discover whether or not I was just another of life’s bullshitters, one who, furthermore, was doing something far worse than kidding on the world – kidding himself on.

I won’t go back over old ground, but in sum I have all my life – that is for the past 51 years – declared ‘I am going to be a writer’ and I wanted to prove to myself that, yes, I am a writer, and, no, I am not just another of life’s bullshitters. Well, the day of reckoning has moved far closer.

But before I get into that, I must admit that I have, in one sense, been a little harder on myself than was absolutely necessary. I announced, shamelessly, that for a guy who ‘wanted to be a writer’ I had, all things being equal and measured against others ‘who wanted to be a write’, written precious little indeed. Well, as it turns out that isn’t quite true.

Certainly, I am and was not one of those who would work a double-shift down on the marshalling yard, then a third manning an late-night dustcart, before returning home at 4 in the morning to sit down at the kitchen table at an ancient Remington typewriter (it had to be an ancient Remington typewriter) and hammering out yet another short story in the event no one wanted to buy, before the necessary shit and a shave and clocking on once again at the marshalling yard. But I have discovered that I have written rather more than I imagined.

Just outside our cottage in North Cornwall stands a small, granite building. When I first married and moved here, it was derelict, and only four walls were standing. But my wife then got her brother David, who is a builder, to


renovate it, install electricity and light, and let our daughter (21 just over a week but then just a toddler) use it as a playhouse. But as sadly always happens with young sons and daughters, the playhouse was used less and less as a playhouse as they grew older ans swapped toy kitchens and playing shop for tamagotchis and laptops, and more and more as a junkyard, the final restoing place for all kinds of crap we no longer used or had use for.

It had everything: her old toys, a gradually rotting kiddies sofa, several large plastic boxes of my junk, two bicycles, a gymansts rower (donated to us by my sister-in-law who also had no more use for it), tools, a ‘director’s chair’ used in the summer months to sit outside in the sun. It was crammed so full of crap that you could hardly get in the door. It stank of mould and damp, and was all in all a crying shame.

Several years ago, I hit upon the idea of clearing out that little cottage (above) and converting it into a den where I could – I can – retreat and, well, write, get down to it and solve the mystery which had haunted me all my life: am I, as I suspected (and, to be honest, still suspect) just another of life’s bullshitters or was there – is there – still a glimmer of hope.

The clearing out began about three weeks ago (as I am still working in London four days a week, it could only be done when I was home). Then I cleaned the walls and gave them several coats of white paint. That always took a time to dry before the next coat could be applied, so it wasn’t until last week that the decorating was completed. I then furnished it, though sparsely, and – best of all – had space to hang some of my photos.

Well, so far, so good. (Bizarrely, my wife, who is, to put it as kindly as I am able, ‘singular’ in many way, immediately, when I announced I was going to hang up some photos, declared in that way she has: ‘No you’re not!’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Because that will bring in damp.’ Well, perhaps as a scion of one of the many farming families here in North Cornwall she is privy to some arcane secrets of life and damp which yours truly and his kind are not. But bugger it. The photos have gone up.)

While I was clearing out and also clearing out a space in my stepmothe’s just down the road, I came across several folders of stories, some completed, some not, and several plays, none completed. And I had forgotten about these. (I also came across about ten A4 hardback ledgers of a diary I used to keep, written in longhand. I might – might – take a look through them at some point even though I find my handwriting just as difficult to decipher as everyone else, but I have to say doing so is most certainly nowhere close to the top of my to do list.

I am writing this in my little den and it is the first thing I have written here. As I explained earlier, I am a firm believer that genius (or the far more modest description I shall claim as my own) is, as the man said, ‘99pc perspiration and 1pc inspiration’, so the plan is to emulate one Somerset Maugham and sit down every day for at least four or five hours every morning and write. Oddly giving yourself no choice in the matter, as I have already discovered, works.

Well, it works in as far as you tend to get something done, however poor to mediocre that work might be. But you will never know whether it will be poor to mediocre, or possibly just a little bit better than that if you don’t fucking get it done in the first place.

So there you have it: the den is ready and I have no more excuses. Here are two pics (and only two are possibly 'cos it isn't very big. One pic is taken from one end, the other from the other.


. . .

I’ve just been online to look up examples of all those dedicated writers who worked 24 hours a day non-stop, then spent another few hours writing because they were so utterly dedicated. And I came across this, from a writer’s blog. Give it a look, it makes interesting reading. And the blogger has been published so she knows what she is talking about.

Even the exceptionally little I know chimes in with what she says. (And, by the way, when next you read your favourite novelist and think ‘Christ, what a good writer’, spare a thought for his or her editor. These are people, experienced people, who have seen a lot of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and who, it has to be said, often improve what they are given to edit.) The blogger makes eight points, each preceded by a relevant quote.

Here are those eight quote:

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. (Gene Fowler)

There’s only one person who needs a glass of water oftener than a small child tucked in for the night, and that’s a writer sitting down to write. (Mignon McLaughlin)

Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. (Anne Lamott)

Art is never finished, only abandoned. (Leonardo da Vinci)

An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts. (Juvenal)

Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. (Samuel Johnson)

This is what I’ve been thinking lately: I’m getting worse. My writing just isn’t as good as it used to be. With every new story I write I believe I’ve lost something—the spark, the raw energy, the ability to see the scene, to tell the truth, to imagine. I look at my stories and feel like they could be so much better. (Jessie Morrison)

Incidentally, I have never heard of Gene Fowler, Mignon McLaughlin, Anne Lamot or Jessie Morrison, but if someone informs you that ‘water is wet’, you don’t discount the information just because you have never heard of whoever passes it on.

Pip, pip (and wish me well).

NB The regime won’t start in earnest until I finally knock work on the head, but that really has to be soon now. I shall be 68 on November 21, and I could have retired on my birthday in 2014. But I carried on – I tell myself – 

because ‘I want to build up my pension’, ‘I shall have a substantially smaller weekly income when I do knock it on the head’, ‘I like the work, and I enjoy the company of my colleagues’ and ‘it’s good to get variety – part of the week in London, the rest of it down here in rural North Cornwall’.
All those excuses are true, but they are just excuses. The main thing which is holding me back is fear that I shall drizzle away my time and prove myself to be exactly that bullshitter I so vehemently hope I am not. Wish me well.

PS I have just uploaded the three pictures and looking at the two interior shots, I wonder whether I shouldn’t put the desk at the other end? Decisions, decisions.

PPS Black and white versions of the above pics are available on request.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

There’s we Brits, all dull, common or garden Anglo-Saxon empiricism, and there’s the exciting adventurous French, all chic away-with-the-fairies rationalism (‘I think, therefore I shall tell you all about it a great incomprehensible length, my intellectual life, my unusual sex life, the bearing it has on my intellectual life . . .’) and when a certain kind meets another certain kind, the outcome is rarely fruitful or happy

Years ago - 28 if you’re asking - I went with the film critic (and education correspondent) of the South Wales Echo, a film producer friend of his and another friend to spend a week in Roscoff, in Brittany, at the Celtic Film Festival. The film critic was Dave Berry. At first I couldn’t remember his name and googled ‘South Wales Echo film critic’ which led me to an obituary in the Independent. Dave, it seems, died seven years ago.

I last spoke to him in the 1990s and promised to drive to Cardiff to meet up again, but, as almost always happens with such promises, it was never kept. Dave was a one-off, one of the nicest guys I’ve known in and out of the business, and he was always good company. May he rest in peace. But all that is by the by.

The film producer was a Richard Staniforth who was visiting the festival on business, trying, as it seems film producers always are, to drum up money for whatever production he and his company at the time (Teliesyn) wanted money for and to network. And I should add that Richard was - is - most certainly no film industry wannabe and has made an interesting career for himself.

When I was working for the South Wales Echo (as a sub-editor from February 1986 till halfway through 1989) in Cardiff, the city was growing a vibrant film industry which, as far as I know is thriving. The BBC makes many of its productions there and the city has been the birthplace of many films, although I’m not sure whether its long-hoped-for role as Hollywood on the Taff ever really came to anything. But it wasn’t for want of talent or trying.

Sadly, I can’t remember the name of our fourth companion, but I do recall he was, I think, the Echo’s district reporter in Porthcawl. He and I just went along for the ride, French food, a drink or three and to see some films.

The Celtic Film Festival now calls itself the Celtic Media Festival - the name is sexier, I suppose - and this year held its 38th festival at the beginning of May on the Isle of Man. It’s first festival was held in 1980 in the Western Isles (it says on the website - I didn’t happen to know that) and the one I attended with Dave, Richard and Mr X was its 10th.

The four of us took off from Cardiff and headed for Plymouth in my reasonably beat-up Austin Allegro which sounded as though it were on the brink of falling apart because the bearings in one of the front wheels had disintegrated, but I had been assured that despite the alarming racket it made, it wasn’t dangerous and the wheel was in no danger of falling off. From Plymouth it was just a short six-hour hop across the channel to Roscoff.

In those days the festival was still true to its principle of providing a platform of ‘Celtic’ films, although even then money was making itself felt and the qualification of somehow being ‘Celtic’ was already being stretched. At the festival the following year in Gweedore, Donegal, which I also attended, there were already rumblings from some that admittance to showing a film which was ‘Celtic’ was already being stretched beyond what many thought was acceptable, and I don’t doubt that last May on the Isle of Man films and whatever was deemed to come under the catch-all term ‘media’ had strayed pretty far from the original ideal.

Accommodation was available at three prices - 50 francs for the week, 40 francs and 30 francs if I remember - and I opted for the cheapest level and rather think I stayed in a more interesting hotel than did Dave and Richard who found themselves in some anonymous Euro hotel. My hotel, on the other hand, was old and sported pipes and staircases going everywhere. I prefer asymmetrical houses which have staircases, both long and short, going everywhere and I have not objection whatsoever to naked pipes, even ones which bang a little when you turn the shower on or flush the lavatory. There was, of course, none of that in the Euro hotel.

We all pretty much went our own way after an evening meal together on the first night in the restaurant of the Euro hotel, but it was memorable for me because it was the first time I had eaten monkfish, and boy was it nice. You might not know it, but the French have a way with cooking and long may it be so.

I can’t remember which films I saw, except one called, I think Elephant, which was a rather mystifying Northern Irish production. It consisted of quite a few shorts one after another, all showing the same thing: a man would meet up as though by appointment with another man and would then be taken somewhere and shot dead, apparently willingly and compliantly.

It was all very puzzling and, I suppose deep, and most certainly was some kind of commentary on the number of IRA killings going on at the time. I remember that I, for some reason, took to timing each segment of film and discovered each was exactly 30 seconds long. Why I really don’t know. And I also remember that a swimming pool featured in it, though again why I have not idea.

Another film I remember was also in another sense odd. Well, at least, I thought it a bit odd, and it most certainly baffled me. It was quite short, about 20 minutes, and consisted of nothing but shots of sailing dinghies and small yachts tooing and frooing on a lake. Some were in long shot, some in medium shot. And that was it. What it was all about, I can’t say, although I think I can say it was probably not some subtle commentary on the number of IRA killings (and I am bound to admit that other terror groups were available, notably Loyalist paramilitary groups who could match the Provos killing for killing no bother).

I’m sure I saw other films, but certainly no others now come to mind. And as I was neither attending the festival as a producer (like Richard Staniforth) networking and, I suppose, hoping to make deals, or as a film critic (like Dave Berry, who apart from being a dead nice, very down-to-earth guy - he was from Lancashire - had an encylopaedic knowledge of film and wrote a respected book, Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years), I just spent every day of the week mooching around.

My day would probably start getting up late, finding a bar for a late-morning cafe au lait, deciding which offering of film I would watch, chatting to whoever I fell into conversation with, then, I suppose - I suppose, because I really can’t remember a great many details - meeting up with one or two of the others, having a meal, then boozing the night away till 2am. As the week

A Frenchman or a Brit? You decide


went, we would find ourselves in someone’s hotel room or other, often mine in the old creaky building I had found myself in, chatting some more and drinking some more. Once, I remember, some old Scot, who must have been at least in his 70s came along to my room with several others and we enjoyed a 60 per cent proof malt he had brought along.

On the last night a gang of people were again in my room and I found myself semi-flirting with a very attractive Frenchwoman. I am one of those guys who is not particularly shy with women, especially after a drink - which is certainly not uncommon - and as dawn broke we were - I think, this is supposition, though I have no reason to doubt it - the last two there and were necking. (I love necking, though again that doesn’t distinguish me in any particular way.)

Everyone was leaving that day, so at about 7am I walked her back to her hotel - again, I think - and told her I would like to see her again. She said she would like to see me again, too, so I asked her for her phone number. She gave it to me. It looked a little unusual, so I asked her where she lived. New York, she said. And, dear reader, I did see her again a few months later.

. . .

The woman was a Rozenn Milin and one aspect of her character is really what brought me to write this entry.

The other night I started watching the film The Moderns by Alan Rudolph. I have seen it before, years ago, and I have seen other of Rudolphs films, although by no means all, and enjoyed each one immensely. He has a very sly, dry somewhat satirical humour and it is no surprise that his career began working as an assistant director for Robert Altman. So how does Rozenn Milin fit in? Well, I was thinking ‘I like Alan Rudolph’s films’ and then Rozenn came to mind.

I didn’t ‘go out’ with her for very long at all, although our association lasted pretty much for about 12 months before it petered out, and we saw each other about five times. I went to visit her for a week in New York (and the new tops I had bought for the trip were rather crushingly described by her as ‘making me look like a guy from New Jersey up in the big city’ - I paraphrase only lightly) and I don’t doubt she had a point. Then she twice came to stay with me in Cardiff where I as working. And finally I went to visit her twice in Paris where she was temporarily based. (I think it was twice because we stayed in two different flats. Perhaps we stayed in two different flats on my one trip. Crucial? Er, no, not really.)

In many ways Rozenn was remarkable in that she spoke English and Welsh as well as French and Breton. She spoke English with an American accent, but spoke it very well indeed and I assume she also mastered Welsh well, particularly as it was related to Breton. She turned 30 while we were ‘seeing each other’, and I use the quotes because to be frank it never really got off the ground as ‘a relationship’.

The reason I mention her here is not to ramble on about yet another ‘relationship’ which led nowhere, but because of a trait Rozenn had which was a tad irritating and which would surely again come to the fore were I to meet up with her and mention that ‘I like Alan Rudolph’s films’. She would then certainly demand to know which of his films I had seen and once I admitted I hadn’t, in fact, seen them all, she would most certainly suggest that I couldn’t then really claim ‘to like Alan Rudolph’s films’.

She had a very high regard for herself, once referring to ‘my (i.e. her) adventurous life’ and, to be honest, she was adventurous. When she left New York, where she had lived for several years, and came to visit me in Cardiff (and dump quite a few of her belongings for safekeeping), she took off again, on her own, for several months in Pakistan. It was the high self-regard I didn’t

If I bloody catch you thinking, you little toerag, there will be hell to play


and don’t much like, in her or anyone else. I was about to write that she suffered from a certain kind of French intellectual arrogance. I’m sure such arrogance is not restricted to the French. especially a certain kind of intellectual arrogance, is not restricted to the French, but they do seem keen on making it their very own. There seems to be the general feeling that only the French are capable of thinking and that if any Englishman manages it, well, it was basically a fluke, one not to be repeated at any time soon.

On another occasion I happened to observe that all too often translations don't, can't even, work, however good they are. ‘Lieu commun’, she countered, which piqued me (and you are well entitled to point out that just how much it must have piqued me can be gauged that I mention it now, 28 years later. You would, though, be wrong, because by then I had already realised I was dealing with a ‘French mind’ and that kind of dismissal was only to be expected).

So there you have it: I like Alan Rudolph’s films, but if you take Rozenn’s hardline approach and insist that no one can make that claim unless and until they had seen all his films . . .

. . .

I must confess that if one of the reasons why that particular relationship went nowhere, it was because I realise, in hindsight, that we were not a good match in many ways, and that probably puts it mildly. She always insisted that all I wanted out of life was to meet a good woman, settle down and have a family.

Well, there was a little truth in that, certainly, and however piss-poor my marriage is (it is piss-poor, though I have to say, that is largely not my fault, but I’ll leave that for another time, if I even write about it at all), in one way I feel happier than I did in that I now again have a home after close on 30 years when I felt horribly rootless and didn’t feel at home anywhere. But that was not the whole truth, and it did irritate me considerably.

I also disliked a certain competitive element in her make-up, a tendency to try to trump the whole time. Still, all that is now history. What, me like Alan Rudolph’s films? Get away!

. . .

I don’t mean to belittle Rozenn’s achievements which are certainly greater than mine. She had begun her life after graduating as a presenter of French regional television in Britanny, then decided she wanted to be an actor which is why she went to New York. Later she helped to set up and ran a Breton language television company, though I gather it didn’t thrive and finally folded, by then reduced to screening loads of important US television films.

I was in touch with her again briefly about eight of nine years ago after I came across her Facebook page and left a message asking her to get in touch. She did, many months later, and I gathered that her life is still adventurous and that she had, I think, just returned from a stint at the French embassy in Tokyo where she had worked as some kind of artistic attache.

We exchanged emails and I then asked her to read my novel - the one and only one, so far, I know, and I’m always banging on about it, but I do actually rate it - and give me her opinion. What’s it about, she asked. I responded that I couldn’t really tell (and still find it difficult to put it into words). Try, she said. I told her that I couldn’t really be expected to say in a few short sentences what had taken my more than 60,000 to write.

She didn’t respond.