Saturday, 18 June 2022

Got work to do . . . Plus yet another plug (you guys really are slow on the uptake. Bet most of you are foreign)

One reason I want to get this Hemingway project completed, done and dusted — and actually ‘completing’ it was one of the main reasons for starting it, learning discipline, patience, endurance, clearer thinking — is because I want to get on with one or two other projects (and which will not be quite as easy). And I am getting no younger.

That Hemingway is at the centre of this project is, ironically, irrelevant. I don’t much enjoy the writing (though he did write several very good short stories, The Killers and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, not being among them in my view).

I think his — small — gift was for short story writing and most certainly not for novels which strike me as nothing but mediocre Boys’ Own adventure potboilers. Brett Ashley has a modicum of oomph, but that drippy Catherine Barkley is not even two-dimensional.

And, furthermore, from what I have learned of the man over these past few years — yes, it’s now been that sodding long! — he and I would not have got on, not for two seconds. Hemingway was ‘larger than life’ and proof if proof were needed that the phrase is simply code for ’a complete pain in the arse’.

I am one of those who acknowledges that we all have our good traits and our less pleasant traits, but more to the point just one or two bad traits can play havoc with quite a few good traits. Put another way, one bad trait can negate ten good traits.

I am undoubtedly rather less aware of my own bad traits than others are, but I am aware of some: and — time for Mr Smug to show his cheery face — I don’t believe I am irredeemably awful. (Apostates, please leave a comment below, then fuck off.)

Anyway to get back on the straight and narrow and try to meander a little less, I’m keen to finish this project so I can get on with what I should really be doing. Oh, and bugger any thoughts of ‘being published’, just getting it done and proving to myself that I am not just another incarnation of Joe Bullshit will be fine by me. Honestly.

That is one of the few benefits of growing older (and far less visible to attractive women — sad but true): you tend have fewer illusions.

Along those lines, I came across a rule-of-thumb statistic several years ago which is always worth remembering and I don’t doubt essentially true: for every 1,000 novels that are written, one is published; for every 1,001 novels that are published, one sells a little. And to that one might add: for every 10,001 novels talked about, planned, dreamed up and I don’t know what, 100 are started and just one is completed.

I write all this — and only now am I getting around to what kicked it off in the first place — because this walking minority report has come across something which has again touched upon what puzzles, not to say, baffles me.

Earlier today, wanting to read a piece by Hemingway biographer Jeffery Meyers that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement six years ago, I took out a digital subscription to the TLS, and decided to get my money’s worth and mosey around, using the search term ‘Hemingway’. There was not a great deal, but I did come across this.

First of all, I am put off by the, often obligatory, reference to ‘genius’. Worse, Gertrude Stein looses even more points by proclaiming herself to be a ‘genius’. Now, Yanks reading that might not be too upset, but we Brits are a little more particular in such matters (‘particular’ being the Brit word for ‘uptight’): the upshot is, you don’t do it.

If someone else wants to proclaim you as ‘a genius’ fair enough but watch your arse though no harm is done. If someone declares her or himself as a genius — no more sherry and Bath Olivers for you, good chap, now on your bike!

I have never read anything by Stein and certainly not her 1,000-word opus The Making Of Americans, but that got me to thinking: has anyone? I have come across excerpts of it, and I wasn’t encouraged to seek out any more excerpts. But then, let’s face it, I might well be a philistine. More to the point, what ‘should’ novels be about?

To talk about that we must get past the first hurdle, the — to my mind spurious — distinction between ‘literature’ and every other piece of fiction that is published. Should we distinguish? Well, no, we shouldn’t.

Those who champion ‘literature’ might like to think that ‘literature’ is marked out by writing that deals with the ‘higher’ things in life and existence, ‘the human condition’ and all that, and ‘every other piece of fiction’ doesn’t (although, sometimes it does, but let’s not quibble). But, but in fact, surely what is pertinent here is how well something it done. I seem to be retreading my last blog entry here, but what the hell. It’s all ‘literature’!

The distinguishing factors are that somehow some books appeal to us on a different level to a workaday thrillers or chic lit or whatever your bag might be. And who is not to say that even such ‘downmarket’ writing might not have more subtle undercurrents?

But having said that, it would be almost impossible to lay down qualifications. For example, a year or two ago I read Saturday by one Ian McEwan, a literary writer who has more sodding awards than you can shake a stick at (and I reviewed it here). And as far as I was concerned it was shite. Quite awful. Yet McEwan is — or possibly now ‘was’ — one of the big noises in the British literary scene, hence the awards.

I am well aware of the cosy underlying nexus which drives the literary industry: in no particular order, writers want to be read and so need a publisher; publishers want to sell books and so need writers they think will sell; to sell they must indulge in the below deck marketing of being mentioned in the Books pages of publications and on the Books programmes of radio and TV; those Books pages and programmes need ‘copy/subject matter’, so they are only too glad to play ball with the publishers (one back scratching the others); then it comes back to the writer: the astute scribbler will get to know what kind of book the publishers want to sell and will supply it.

Those who don’t deliver the particular ‘saleable goods’ can frankly go hang.

I don’t read any ‘new writers’. Quite apart from having most of my reading time taken up with stuff about Hemingway, my view is that there are too many books which have stood the test of time which I might enjoy before I start dicking around with ‘modern literature’ (or that phoney old, oxymoronic standby, a ‘new classic’, though hats off to the cynic in the marketing department who first dreamed up that one).

Do really want to read ‘an important new novel’ outlining how the world is heading to eco-disaster? Or how family life is awful / fantastic? Or growing up gay in an Amish/mining/black community? Granted, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating or to put another way ‘it’s not the joke but the way you tell it’, and we should always be ready to be surprised by a new talent. But . . .

That might go some way to explaining why — sour grapes notwithstanding, obviously — I am not holding my breath about ‘getting a publisher’.

I realise I have meandered a little too much in this entry, but — well, tough titties. But I shall end by yet again plugging — for the umpteenth time a rather promising novel (which happens to be by me. Oh, and always remember never to judge a book by its cover, quite literally in this case.

It’s called Love: A Fiction, you can find it here and if by some fluke someone in publishing or even with a tenuous connection to publishing reads this, do yourself a favour and check it out. You might, if nothing else, at least find it is an enjoyable read — no eco disaster, no gay character, not family trauma, nothing.

Oh, and even if you are too tight-fisted to buy it but noted my comments on the literary industry merry-go-round, you could at least — it will cost you nothing — check out this short story.

Pip, pip.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

‘Passionate about literature’ and ‘you want to investigate the human condition’? Well, sod off — you’re barred from this blog. There are no rules and don’t fall for anyone’s schtick that there are

This entry is, in fact, just a trial run of something I want to include in my ‘Hemingway bollocks’ because I find I am able to clarify my thoughts better in conversation and writing than I do in thinking.

So it might be best to clarify them here first and sound like a fool in these pages rather than later in the bollocks itself.

Note to astute readers: you will, I’m sure, already be aware that self-deprecation is rarely honest and all too often flies under a false flag. It has nothing to do with modesty as it might to some seem and everything to do with self-defence. If ‘I can belittle myself first’, it rather takes the wind out of your sails if you try to do that.

The bonus when resorting to self-deprecation is that the less astute readers will be suckered into thinking it is also an admirable demonstration of modesty. Oh, and my reference to ‘astute readers’ is another ploy: flattery. Works a treat almost always.

For some reason I thought of this from Francois de La Rochefoucauld (left) which seems to me to be obscurely related:

‘A refusal of praise is a desire to be praised twice’.

I have a line which I have actually used, although it was for my own amusement to see if it would work rather than to win some advantage. It goes like this:
I often use flattery to try to win people over, but I suspect you’re a little too bright to fall for that kind of thing.
And yes, it worked, and it even works if whoever you are talking to is aware of what you are up to. ‘Ah,’ they tell themselves, ‘but then I spotted that a mile off and didn’t fall for it’. They might not then consciously follow up with ‘and clever me’, but they will certainly feel just a little proud with their small triumph. So: result!

But back to what I wanted to write about.

One problem with my way of writing my ‘bollocks’ — now a series of essays on their own website (which I have plugged incessantly, but shall do so again) and which I shall also have printed up courtesy of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing — is that while I am reading and writing, I think up things ‘I want to say’ at some point.

But long ago I decided not to make a note of them simply because when I did jot down short notes, I never bloody read them. The only useful notes I do read are along the lines of ‘good quote in [author] pxx’.

My view is that if I thought it once, it will occur to me again, and if it doesn’t well, it couldn’t have been much of a thought in the first place.

My ‘bollocks’ (and I must find the courage to drop the quote marks and stand tall and proud) is drawing to a close as far as the writing is concerned (i.e. I shall have to go through the whole thing and revise it).

I am now completing a section of the ‘potted biography’ covering 1945 to Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, and then it is time to write the ‘conclusion’. One of the many points i shall make in that is how reactions to Hemingway are invariably subjective and cannot be anything but.

I have already written an essay on that topic — specifically that no number of subjective judgments, however much they agree with each other, will equate to an objective judgment. And though many might superficially agree with me, they are essentially behaving as though they do.

I make the point that ‘the arts’ cannot be compared to ‘the sciences’ — that (super-clever mathematicians notwithstanding, I’ll say cautiously) 2 + 2 = 4, and it would be a certain kind of nonsense to ‘have an opinion’ on whether that is true or not. Yet the arts industry de facto behave as though there is a kind of copper-bottomed ‘this is / this is not’ element to their thinking and judgments.

In that sense all the bods who staff literature departments of schools, colleges and universities acquire an odd kind of ‘we are the experts’ status, almost like the high priests in some religions.

They might — they probably will — deny it and affect a faux modesty, and insist that they are just regular chaps like you and I, but don’t fall for that schtick: they think they are right and — as with my apostasy on Ernest Hemingway, ‘greatest American author of the 20th century of this parish’ — others are wrong or mad. 

I’ll just throw this in for good measure: I metaphorically run a mile if and when I hear someone declare him or herself ‘passionate about literature’. Really? Fuck off.

Moving on a little, my ‘conclusion’ will not just highlight how — I shall contend — your, my and everyone else’s judgment on this or that writer, poem, painter and composer is essentially and wholly subjective, but that there is also the not-so-slight problem of ‘relativism’ to cloud the issue.

I must confess that what I ‘know’ about ‘relativism’ in the philosophically academic sense is tiny. But I am a firm believer that all ‘philosophical problems’ are at the core simple. The one I always quote is, in moral philosophy, the ‘is / ought’ gap.

Seen from another angle, that ‘is / ought gap’ is the essential difference between ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ rules, i.e. at what point and on whose authority does the observation that ‘we have been doing it this way for some time’ become the instruction ‘this is how we should be doing it (because we have been doing it this way for some time)’?

Very many eminent philosopher have broken their hears and souls trying to crack that one and none has succeeded. More to the point none will succeed. (It was all a little easier when many still believed in and acknowledged the ultimate authority of ‘God’, but then he died about 300 years ago and it all went tits up. The most recent attempt to bridge the ‘is / ought’ gap is when we insist on the immutable existence of ‘fundamental human rights’.

Nice try, but no cigar, although I should swiftly point out that I am slandering the philosophical attempts to make those rights immutable, not the acceptance by many, not least me, that every man jack and jill on Earth has the right to be treated with dignity.

In the early 20th century a gang of ‘thinkers’ who were regarded as (or called themselves, I don’t know which) ‘logical positivists’ and were known as the Vienna Circle (great gang of lads, right) and who were rather keen on mathematics, did suggest that ‘reality’ might be reduced to and understood better as — well, whatever it was they were reducing it to and understanding it better as.

Because as far as I’m concerned ‘philosophy’ is firmly in the woolly, fluffy arts camp and has no place among the hard-nosed toughs of science, in that sense it was another attempt to equate ‘the arts’ with the science, to insist that there was a mechanistic dimension to ‘art’, one which might allow ‘objectivity’ and ‘objective’ judgments.

That is partly what I want to suggest in my ‘conclusion’, though at not too great a length as I have already written an essay on it.

I then want to follow that up with the suggestion that each story, novel, poem, painting and piece of music should be — that bloody word ‘should’ again, damn! — evaluated and judgment hermetically. In practical terms that might be difficult, but I do think each work should be judged in and of itself.

Further to the question of subjectivity is the — in one way more obvious question — of what we actually ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. With the best will in the world that, too, might have a bearing on our judgment of a piece of prose or poetry.

For example, I have a preference for what I am tempted to call ‘well-written prose’, but that immediately begs the question ‘so what is and is not well-written?’ And now you have just opened another can of worms.

One analogy that occurred to me when reading some Hemingway story or other was that it was like stumbling through a newly-ploughed field. It wasn’t easy to read.

That is, and cannot be, a fundamental objection, of course, because a writer is doing — one assumes — 1,001 other things when she or he writes. And who says writing should be ‘easy’?

Joyce’s Ulysses is said to be a ‘great work of art’, but is it ‘easy to read’. Well, I — who can admit to having read quite literally every word of the book, but further admit it was just the once and that I probably never shall again — can confirm Ulysses is not ‘easy to read’.

(And by the by, there has even been the serious suggestion from people more qualified to make such suggestions than I that ‘Joyce could certainly have done with an editor’). I’ve also attempted Faulkner and did not like it enough to persevere, although that was some years ago and I might have matured enough intellectually to try a second attempt. But the ease or difficulty with which one can read an author can’t, I think, be the main yardstick by which a work is judged.

One such measure would, though, be: how well has this author managed to achieve what she or he set out to achieve. But then we are again opening a can of worms, our second or third can of worms (I’ve lost count).

If, as I suggest, a work should be judged hermetically and we do not resort to external ‘evidence’, the question is then ‘can know what an author intended to do?’ If, once have persuaded ourselves we do know, we might be able to judge whether the intention was realised.

On the other hand how can we be sure we know ‘what the writer intended’? For example Hemingway wrote his long short story Big Two-Hearted River in 1925/6, but it wasn’t until several decades later, it seems, that he declared he intended it to portray the mental healing of a young man who had returned from war.

That has now become the standard exegesis, but I suggest you wouldn’t pick up on that (as I didn’t) simply by reading the story.

Here, perhaps, an example from the real world might help. I have before written about the website Deadline For Writers (which I have found very helpful in getting me off my arse and actually writing fiction).

In the past three years I have submitted 51 short stories and 42 pieces of verse and every now and then others who are members comment on a story or poem. And what they ‘see’ in the piece, what they think I am trying to convey and what a piece ‘means’ to them are quite often something different to what I thought my story ‘was about’.

So here’s the question: I would assume it is axiomatic that when we create art (and I hold that ‘art’ is a ‘process’, an ‘undertaking’, an ‘activity’, not some vague metaphysical property that some pieces have and others do not have), we are doing so consciously.

The ‘art’ — in whatever medium — consists of ‘conceiving’ (perhaps in the process even and often re-conceiving and altering the original conception), then ‘realising’ that conception, giving it ‘form’ (in the case of sound and music that meant metaphorically).

When we come to judge the ‘worth’ of that piece, we might depend on how successful think the author of it (or artist or composer) has been in ‘realising’ a conception. Even Hemingway might be thought to agree with that suggestions.

Although he was responding in the 1930s to pressure from the Left to make his writing more ‘engaged’ and ‘socially relevant’ he said: ‘There is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing.’ (Oscar Wilde took a similar view on ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’, but I can’t offhand come up with any ready quote from the man.)

None of what I write here is or intended to be ‘hard and fast’. There are far too many bods — not least sodding ‘Papa’ himself (and, Lord, is that nickname absurd) — laying down the law on this, that and t’other. As far as I am concerned what works, works and what doesn’t doesn’t (and laws were made to be broken, although having said that, this old codger has finally learned the wisdom of learning to walk before trying to run).

Furthermore, something, some way of ‘creating’ might work for some but not for others, so what is the point of becoming dogmatic and didactic?

Hemingway was dogmatic and didactic, though and sincerely thought he was one of the world’s best writers. Something he said, which I have only recently come across, gives — me at — least a little more insight into his thinking. It was in a letter he sent to his editor at Scribner’s Max Perkins:

It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

Well, no, Ernie, dear heart, that’s nonsense bordering on total bollocks. If nothing else, trying your hand at ‘creating’, call it what you will, is the last free place in the world. It is a very wild west and there are no laws. You might not find anyone in the least bit interested by what you have ‘created’, but that’s not the point: do what you want to do.

Obviously, it also depends on what your goal is: if ‘earning a living and making money’ is your goal, there certainly are ‘law of prose writing’ but they are dependent on the industry to which you intend to sell our soul.

If you want to serve the crime-writing readers and become a big noise in the crime-writing fraternity, go for it, but remember to do it their way. If you want to woo slushy romance readers, mug up on An Idiot’s Guide To Writing Slushy Romans.

If ‘examining the human condition’ and ‘creating serious art’ is your bag (and you don’t mind making no money but will settle for drinking acidic, lukewarm white wine with folk who are ‘passionate about literature’) mug up on An Idiot’s Guide To Writing Serious Literature.

There seem to be as many different kinds of writing as there are writers, as many different reasons for writing as there are writers and there are no ‘law of prose’ writing.

If one were talking about writing as ‘communication’ — which, though, we are not — there could be might be law, more of a rule: make yourself bloody understood! If you fail to make yourself understood, you haven’t communicated, have you.

In fact, in a broader sense that is true even if you are trying to convey — as in communicate — something a little more complex than the time of the next train to London. If you do manage to ‘communicate’ what you were trying to communicate, then you are succeeding. But if you don’t . . . (and don’t fool yourself).

At this point I am obliged to draw attention to what I wrote about those who read a story or poem of mine and who ‘saw’ something different (and which I had no idea was there): that’s another good reason for why it’s best for writers never to discuss their work.

A writer not discussing ‘their work’ might piss off their publisher (if they are lucky enough to have one), but that is a small price to pay for preserving readers’ illusions. And what is ‘art’ after all but one huge illusion?

I mean if you have read this blog entry so far and have come to the conclusion that I am ‘a great writer in the making’, I would be a moron to persuade you you’re wrong. If that’s your illusion . . .

Saturday, 28 May 2022

Give this song a spin

I’ve been working on recording and refining this for the past few days.

It doesn’t have a vocal track as I am still not very confident in my singing, but otherwise the song is complete with lyrics and you can get in idea of what it might be from the video. 

I should point out that it is essentially fictional, although a good many married couples will be able to relate to the, not least me. It was recorded using Apple’s Garageband and the drum track is one of those (Neo soul) supplied with the software.

The guitars tracks (about four or five of them are all ‘live’, as are the other instruments — jazz organ, electric piano and synth. For some reason I didn’t have to edit the guitar at all except to delete two bum notes.

Also there is one ‘mistake’: the beginning of the second guitar solo comes in a bar or half a bar to soon. But I like the effect, so I kept it.





Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Three more pages if you are interested (which apparently no one is, sob, sob)

• 1940-1945 — Part I: Writing gives way to the ‘war effort’, but the fame grows though another marriage begins to fail




What the papers says:


A must, must, must buy for Yom Kippur!
Jewish Chronicle

No cook dare be without this definitive guide to that master of fiction Ernest Hemingway (who could also rustle up a mean omelette).
The Caterer inc Wine And Cheese Monthly

Not only could he write — but he was sex on legs!
Cosmopolitan

And many, many more. Read the entries and be astonished!

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Patrick Powell's cake moment (er, he's not French but half Kraut, half English)

As usual down her in sunny Cornwall when it is not pissing with rain or the chilly side of ‘mild’, I sit outside in the garden with a glass of something or other, these days just read wine of cheap port, and read. But I also fall to thinking, and as I believe that 90% of writing is actually thinking (and planning, though planning is essentially thought), I often find myself mulling over what I am going to write.

That now includes what — I hope will become a longer piece for which I only have an outline of the first line and the essence of what it will be. I have now forgotten the original first line as I worded it — and it was perfect, just what I wanted — but that doesn’t matter as I believe if you can’t play the same tune again, that tune wasn’t too good to start with. It was something along the lines of ‘It was just after I turned 40 that I realised that I smelled/smelt’ (NB The ‘smelled/smelt’ is now giving me problems: which spelling will or should it be. Discuss.)

I can’t remember whether or not that was my ‘perfect’ line, the one I thought of yesterday’ but since then I have come up with an alternative which has the advantage of being more than a tad ambiguous and will probably be the one I shall go with: ‘It was just after I turned 40 that I realised I stank.’ See what I mean?

What I mean about going outside and having a drink in the fresh garden air is that I think of all kinds of stuff — stories, first lines, themes for this Hemingway bollocks — but I never rush in to ‘get it down’. I don’t even ‘take notes’. My reasoning is that if it is any good and worthwhile and not a load of crap, it will occur to me again. And also it will have lodged itself somewhere in my brain. And if it hasn’t and if I forget it, well, who give a bloody toss. I’m sure you don’t.

Pip, pip.



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Saturday, 14 May 2022

With all my love, Cassandra. See you in the next world

I once came across a comparison (in the Economist, though that is not important) which might at first blush seem obvious, but the essence of it is something we often tend to forget.A great many of our attitudes are large sub-conscious: we take so much for granted that we rarely question what to use seems beyond question. The comparison in the Economist was made in a piece about the – rather swift – demise of the Soviet Union.

If like me you had grown up in the 1950s (my first decade), the 1960s and the 1970s, the notion of the United States as ‘the leader of the free world’ (as ridiculous a claim as that the Rolling Stones are ‘the world’s best rock band’) pitted against the essentially evil Soviet bloc in ‘the Cold War’ was a mainstay of our lives.

Because both sides had a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons and because both were intimately involved in proxy wars around the world, there was the constant fear that a wrong move by either could lead to ‘global destruction’.

More to the point that particular geo-political fact of life seemed to be a part of all our futures for infinity and beyond. This inability to conceive of any other arrangement was summed up by the comparison made in the Economist.

Imagine, it said, that you lived at the bottom of a very large soup bowl with very high sides. You cannot see over the top and into the world beyond and if you have been living there for a very long time, you cannot even begin to think what life might be like outside the soup bowl.

Many had lived with the reality of the ‘evil’ USSR for so long that they couldn’t conceive of a world in which there no longer was a powerful USSR. Then, it seems almost over night, there wasn’t.

The point of this entry is not to discuss what led to the demise of the Soviet bloc, but to record the surprise of all those living in that deep, high-sided soup bowl that there is an end to everything. That is a comfort to all those suffering when times are bad, but in good times a reminder to all of us not to take the east, the prosperity for granted.

That, too, might seem obvious, but the trouble is we do: we have very short memories. Fourteen years ago (at the time of writing), the world’s banking system was in crisis (though ‘the West’ being rather self-important might not necessarily constitute all of ‘the world’, and I don’t know how the banking crisis affected countries in, say South America). And it was serious.

Essentially, because of the prevalence of bad debts incurred by some banks and other financial institutions, no one felt able to ‘trust’ anyone else. The financial system froze up, banking business came to an abrupt halt and there was a very real danger of many national economies simply collapsing in on themselves.

As it happens swift action — action which was both brave and potentially very dangerous — managed to avert the worst and what might have been long-term disaster was averted. (The ‘dangers’ of the measures taken include what was euphemistically called ‘quantitive easing’ which — I’m more then willing to be corrected — in practice consisted of what amounted to printing money. 

And in the long term such a practice devalues the money we have and cause inflation. However, it doesn’t seem to have done so at the time.

I don’t want to come across as some poundshop cassandra, however. I am not suggesting that ‘we are all doomed’ (©Pte Frazer), but events in the past 30 months, mainly the global covid-19 pandemic and, more recently the bizarre decision by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, have upset the apple cart in a very grand way. Neither event might have been foreseen and both, in different ways, have led to a leap in inflation in the West.

Most European economies seem to have rebounded from the damage created by ‘covid lockdowns’ surprisingly quickly. But it would is wiser to be less sanguine about the war in Ukraine (which, by the way, I ‘predicted’ would not happen. Shows what I know.

I insisted that the build-up of Russian troops on the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine were just a ham-fisted ‘show of strength’ by Putin. I was wrong, sadly). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Putin is physically and possibly mentally ill and is no longer acting rationally. Mind given that our various newspaper ‘commentators’ are obliged to trot out an opinion at least once a day, all week, it is difficult to know just how seriously we should take ‘conventional wisdom’.

My view is that the intelligence services of the countries making up ‘the West’ which are supporting Ukraine will keep well to themselves what they discover in this way and that and what their analysts forecast simply because it is by far wisest for the ‘the enemy’ (i.e. Putin and Russia) not to know what we know or think we know.

With that in mind, there will be no chance of MI6 and their foreign mates to call a daily Press conference to keep the ‘commentators’ up-to-date. And although said ‘commentators’ might speak of — boast about would be a better description — ‘their sources in the security services’, neither they nor we, their readers, will or can know whether they aren’t being fed a lot of hooey by ‘their sources’, for whatever reason.

I stress: if you cannot know whether what you are being told is ‘the truth’ or just a load old bollocks, it’s best to assume it is complete cobblers.

By all accounts — Russia and its armed forces are making complete tits of themselves in Ukraine, and the persistent fear of ‘the mighty Russian bear’ has been shown to be little more than a nursery nightmare. But what is not a groundless fear is that Putin is able and just might use nuclear weapons.

In view of the underlying philosophy of ‘mutually assured destruction’ which in demotic language boils down to ‘you might be able to fuck us, but we will fuck you in retaliation, so you will gain nothing’, we — the West — hope

 

that Putin, irrational as his decision to invade might now seem, is still not irrational enough to launch his nuclear weapons. But: who bloody knows?

I like to think — that is ‘I’ who confidently predicted that massing more than 100,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine was just a macho ‘show of strength’ — that there is a sufficient number of saner, more rational Russians in the Kremlin who are thinking ‘enough is enough, this bloody loon is damaging our country for no reason at all’.

Certainly, there are a great many nutters and fanatics about, in Northern Ireland, in ISIS, in the US bible belt, among the ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel (who, believe it or not refuse to serve in their country’s armed forces, but don’t at all mind being protected by them), but there is also a substantial number who want little more than a quiet, peaceful and trouble-free life. And I don’t doubt there are as many such Russians as there are Brits, Germans, French, Brazilians and Yanks. 

They will understand that although Russia is not perfect — and no country is — things were running just fine for them and their countrymen before Putin decided to invade Ukraine. That has turned into a disaster, so let’s not compound that disaster by allowing the loon to nuke the West. But: who knows?
Like the guys at the bottom of that soup bowl, until December 2019 when we got our first reports of the covid outbreak in Wuhan, China, much was going quite well for most of us. Yes, we had our niggles, and some more than many, but . . .

We did not think that might change. It did, though. So perhaps it might now be best to fear the worst and look forward to being pleasantly surprised, not to say very relieved, when it doesn’t happen. But: who knows?

Love, Cassandra.

PS It’s worth remembering the advice given to Brits in the 1950s as to what to do if your area is targeted by a nuclear warhead: get under a table. It might not do much, but surely it is better than nothing? Surely.

Monday, 9 May 2022

First post in ages, but a trip to France makes its presence felt

Langon, SW France, May 9.

I haven’t posted here for some time, and I am conscious of it. There’s no reason at all, except that I have nothing much to record here, and as all too often my posts lately have been nothing more than a round-up on current affairs on what I have been reading in the more ‘serious’ newspapers and journals (all things are comparative so ‘serious’ means ‘not quite as fucking daft’), I felt it was a tad artificial and pretentious to post here - though saying nothing - simply because I hadn’t posted here for a while. I have been posting on my ‘secret’ blog, but the entries are far shorter and where I can let my hair down.

I am on a ten-day visit to see my aunt in Illats, with whom you might be familiar from previous entries over these past few years. For about seven or eight year, I would visit in July to accompany her to several of the concerts put on at that time as part of a series of three. The last time was, I think, in 2017, the year before I retired, but the visits stopped when she became too frail to go out much, and not at all in the evenings when the concerts were being held.

She has been in even poorer health this past year. She is now 91, the sight in one eye has gone (though it still itches and irritates irrespective of that), she has one (or possibly even two) new knees, and has fallen badly several times. We kept in touch by email and I was going to visit here in the autumn, but my wife suggested I should make it earlier than that in case - well, in case. So here I am.

. . . 

I arrived last Wednesday, and as always it takes a day or two of acclimatising. I was going to be staying for a little over two weeks, but of her older son announced that he and his wife would be coming this Saturday for the weekend and could not make it at any other time, so I had to re-arrange my flight. So far the routine has been the same - breakfast, lunch (nothing grand but far longer than the usual 13 minutes most Brits or, I suppose, Yanks give over for that meal) and supper.

Well, my routine at home is vastly different: a mug of tea at 9.30 for breakfast, two mugs of cafe au lait (or call it what you will, at 11.20/12, then nothing to eat until supper (tea in rural North Cornwall, but we middle-class lads are addicted to ‘standards’ so it’s ‘supper’ as far as this blog is concerned) which could be at between 5.30 and 7 if not a little later.

The upshot is that I, who eats not a great deal at the best of times, although I love food, felt bloated, fat and just didn’t want so much booze. The crunch came yesterday: we were due to have a good lunch at a local very good, and not very cheap restaurant.

So I had no breakfast and later skipped the early evening aperitif - gin and tonic for me and whisky for my aunt - and then skipped supper. I also had a relatively early night. I slept for ten hours which shows just how much I needed it.

So today I took a day off and went to visit a local 13th century castle, Chateau de Roquetillaide (I think I got the spelling right) which was interesting - I like castles - but might have been even more so if the guide’s commentary had not been entirely in French.

As it happens, the guy on the ticket desk who spoke perfect English (courtesy of an English mother and and education at a Surrey private school) gave me a guide in English which pretty much covered what she was telling all the other, presumably French or French-speaking visitors, about eight of them. When I got there, I realised I had visited before, but that didn’t matte because I could remember nothing about it (except that I had been there before).

. . . 

Apart from that? Well, nothing. That murderous moron Putin is still destroying parts of south-east Ukraine and killing willy-nilly, but there is nothing I can helpfully add. I suspect this is really not the end of of something very unsettling to the ‘world order’, but the beginning, but quite how it will all work out I am not stupid enough to suggest.

The Hemingway bollocks is still on track and thank fully I can see the end of the tunnel. I still enjoy the reading, thinking and writing, but I shall be glad when I can finally get on with something else (and have long had my thoughts about that). The central irony of it all is that this is not about Hemingway at all or about ‘literature’ or writing (about which so many declare themselves to be ‘passionate’) or anything like that.

The prime reasons for undertaking what has proved to be a far greater and longer task than I anticipate were very simple: ‘to do something and complete it as best I could’ and ‘to do something and complete it as best I could’. Secondary reasons were ‘to learn to think clearly’ and ‘not to rush anything’. 

Whether it was about just how (as is the subtitle ‘how did a middling writer achieve such global literary fame’ or ‘do sqirrels dream?’ was irrelevant. It was ‘completing it and not cutting corners’ which drove me on’. And I have to say it could not have been done before I had retired which, oddly, removed an imperative to rush which had not just blighted my life but - ‘he laughed’ - my ‘careeer’.

NB Many and latterly most of those I worked with on ‘Fleet Street’ had ambitions to make a ‘good career’ (are you reading this Andrew Morrod?). I never did. Career? What the fuck are they talking about?



Thursday, 7 April 2022

How to waste time completely, utterly and successfully . . .

Lord can we waste time when we shouldn’t be. For the past few weeks I’ve got to a simple place in on of the accounts of Hemingway’s life, but wanted to be sure of certain dates. (His marriage to Martha Gellhorn collapsed and one reason was that she was an independent professional who refused to play little wifey to the old fraud. He took it badly.

They were together, first in an affair, then in marriage (about which she had her doubts from the start) for a total of around years, of which about four/five were as a married couple.

In those years Gellhorn tried to do as expected by she chafed at the bit and took off on journalistic assignments several time for, in one case, about four months. It is the dates of her trips I wanted to be sure off.

Well, after reading and re-reading parts of this book and that, I am now and yesterday and again today I was going to write the few hundred words to move myself on. I did a little yesterday, but today I have been faffing around like nobody’s business. And for the past 70/80 minutes I have been producing this Guardian spoof for no reason but a laugh. Here it is:





Friday, 18 March 2022

Introducing the little-known writer Eugene Mahlzeit and wasting my time as usual and feeling a tad guilty but not too much. And anyway at least I am productive, if not in a very useful way

Here’s a thing: I am concentrating on finishing my ‘Hemingway bollocks’ and I am getting there. One advantage is, of course, that not only do I have no deadline, not even a self-imposed deadline, but it is of absolutely no consequence to anyone in this world whether or not I finish or even whether or not is is even interesting. No one, but no one, except me gives a flying fuck. That is an advantage.

One of my major failings since I was very young was to rush everything. Perhaps it had to do with having an older brother who was good to excellent — or so it seemed to me then — at whatever he turned his hand to. It seemed effortless. He was good at sports, I wasn’t. He was good at school, I wasn’t. I was always — and still am, though now I am proud of the fact — a plodder. Plod, plod, plod.

In my work as a newspaper sub-editor — I was only a reporter for six years — my tendency to rush, to cut corners, to make do and all the rest, was at times catastrophic, though purely in the sense, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out that, newspapers are ‘A device unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation’.

So take ‘catastrophic’ with a pinch of salt, as for many leaving for work without their smartphone is ‘a disaster’. Oh, and (a sub writes) note to Mr Shaw: in the generally accepted sense of the word a newspaper is not a ‘device’. ‘Institution’ might have done the trick, but we take your point.

As for MY point, it is that since I retired (four years ago come Monday, April 4) I have simply stopped rushing, simply because there is really no need to rush, none at all. There are no deadlines whatsoever. And that means I give myself all the time in the world to do whatever I am doing to ensure it is just as I want it.

It would be different if, say, I had a publisher who was hassling my for ‘your second novel’. But I don’t and the chance of that happening are rather slimmer than the Pope taking advantage of new same-sex laws and making an honest man out of Donald Trump.

This is not to say that there is no slight pressure, but it is self-imposed. Why, I have no idea, but concluding this ‘Hemingway bollocks’ so I can get on with other writing and making sure it is not embarrassing is a form of pressure, and I find I feel oddly ‘guilty’ at the end of the day if I ‘have done’ nothing, i.e. not written a bit more (or rewritten and edited with a view to improving it, on it.

I have been very good these past few months and though progress has been slow, it has been steady. Then came yesterday.

. . .

Yesterday I decided to prepare my Sony digital 8 camcorder for sale on eBay. The model is a DCR-TRV 460e. and I bought it about 20-odd years ago because it in that particular range it was one of only two that could also read analogue tapes. And I had a lot of those from my children’s childhood. 

The trouble was it had developed a fault — and I seem to remember somewhere that is was a design fault — whereby on playback there would be three thick horizontal lines of distortion across the picture. By pressing down on top of the camera this could be temporarily remedied and at the time it worked.

However, as everyone and their pussy cat can now take video on their smartphone — and I can (though the quality is not as good) I hadn’t used it in years. I recently took it out with a view to transferring some short clips to my laptop to burn on a DVD, but found that the remedy to ‘cure’ the fault didn’t work. So I decided to sell it on eBay and yesterday set about getting it ready. But this time the remedy did work.

I had only three of the many tapes I recorded to hand and went through parts of them and came across about ten minutes worth of utterly pointless shots of the lane outside our cottage. I could not and still cannot think why I recorded them.

Then at some point I decided to use them with a simple soundtrack I knocked together into a short video about little known American modernist novelist Eugene Mahlzeit (look him up though you won’t find a lot because mainstream he ain’t, but his three novels are worth it).

And this again I didn’t do any work on the ‘bollocks’ and felt guilty. No matter that I enjoyed every second of knocking together the video (below) and no matter that I succeeded in doing what I wanted to do, I still felt and feel guilty. So if you don’t enjoy it, I shall be very annoyed. Here it is:



Something else which interests, no, fascinates me is how much a soundtrack can influence or reactions to a film or video. As far as I am concerned the soundtrack, whatever it is, is crucial to eliciting the reaction the director/producer (I never know who is ultimately in charge) wants to get.

Watch a horror film with the sound off, and it very soon becomes not ‘horrible’ at all. And that soundtrack can be very, very subtle. The ‘piece of music’ I constructed — a more honest word than ‘composed’ — for my video about consists of just four notes and a recording of a clock ticking I found on Freesound.org.

It was made using Mac’s free Garageband software and consists of three tracks, each doubled up and the instrument changed and reverb. Thirteen years ago (I know that because I have just downloaded these two videos from You Tube to which I uploaded them 13 years ago) are a case in point: the exact same video but it creates a different effect merely because of the music chosen for each.

Take a look.



It is the almost identical video (I made one or two slight changes for the second, upbeat version, but nothing of relevance here) but the music used is wholly different. The first is the song Orik Gullaganda by the Azerbaijani singer Sevara Nazarkhan, and the second is (and I had to look this up using Soundhound because I couldn’t remember) Cotton Tail by duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The first is doomy and the images are vaguely sinister. The second is upbeat but the — same — are just images.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

‘Ah’ (I think) I said, ‘Putin won’t invade. He’s not THAT stupid’. Guess what? As for that nice Mr Xi, what is he to make of the antics of his new best friend?

Well, I got it wrong. I think — I really can’t be arsed to read through my last blog entry, but I’m pretty sure I remember correctly — that I suggested it was all some big bluff on Putin’s part, that all he wanted was to scare the shit out of the West and to remind them that he was still around and that in the event he wouldn’t invade, because what would be the point?

Well, to be frank from what we know now there is no point: Putin seems to have shot himself in the foot badly and there seem to be no advantage of any kind he can gain from his ‘special operation’, the phrase the Russians are using in to avoid calling it a war.

I feel oddly uncomfortable referring to ‘the Russians’ in that way as if the bear some of the responsibility for the invasion. They don’t. This is Putin’s war, Putin’s doing, not Russia’s. ‘The Russians’ weren’t consulted, not least the parents and women who have already had a son or partner killed.

And given that, as is the way of dictators, Putin has now shut down every media outlet he does not control, the only ‘news’ a great many Russians are getting, especially those in the back of beyond, about what is going on in Ukraine is what Putin wants them to hear: that the ‘special operation’ was necessary to rid Ukraine of a cabal of Nazis who were perpetuating genocide (on whom is never made clear) and that Ukraine can be returned to the bosom of Mother Russia.

It is also all ‘going to plan’. So please, let’s not lump in ‘the Russians’ as being in any way to blame for the killing and bombing. This solely down to Putin and those around him supporting and facilitating him.

. . .

As for the ‘facts’ of the case, I would not deny that the West is also inclined to put a suitable spin on what is happening, but given the nature of our media it is very unlikely we are being spun a crock of lies simply because to do so is nigh-on impossible.

I shall, though, reiterate that all I can do in these blog entries as far as the ‘facts’ are concerned is repeat — parrot? — what I hear on the news and, to a lesser extent, read in the papers (though I am inclined to give more credence to reports in the Financial Times and The Economist than in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail).

Apart from those facts, there is also the central mystery: why is Putin doing this? Why has a man who hitherto was regarded as supreme pragmatism and rational to a fault undertaken such a stupid operation.

One popular explanation is that he is ill, possibly with cancer or Parkinson’s and being treated with steroids. That, ‘they’ say, would explain his puffy face and, ‘they’ say, it could be the cause of what the tabloids call ‘roid rage’, personality change which makes you more aggressive.

Bodybuilders who use a steroids a lot are known to suffer from ‘roid rage’ (two words which for the tabloids has the useful virtue of being just four letters each and which will fit very nicely in 200pt Franklin Gothic in a splash headline. What would fit was also a consideration when the tabloids arbitrarily renamed (‘dubbed’) Prince William as ‘Wills’ — shorter and more suited to a snappy headline).

We are also being told here in the West, and it is a very plausible explanation, that the pitiful nature of Putin’s invasion is because is intelligence service are so scared of him now that they tell him what they think he wants to hear. The same was true of Hitler.

So he seems sincerely to have believed that his invading troops would be welcomed by the Ukrainians with open arms and there would be very little resistance. That is one reason for his opening strategy, to send in light vehicles in an intended swift operation rather than rumble in with heavy and slower tanks. He seems to have expected to have taken over Kiev in a matter of days.

We are told he was also badly informed about the state of his armed forces. Supposedly a great deal of money has been spent over the past decade modernising his army, but we now believe a lot of the money was syphoned off to pay for baubles and yachts for those able to syphon it off.

One example given is that the original tyres (US 'tires' though I don't know why) on one state-of-the-art military vehicle were substituted with cheap Chinese retreads which would and did not last at all long.

But in a sense all this is just me whistling in the wind. What is going to happen? Will Putin behave in some way which gives the West, as in Nato, not choice but to get involved, (and so far they have been keeping their noses very clean because of the likely consequences)? Could the war in Ukraine spread to other parts of Europe? Will nuclear weapons at some point be launched? Will other states hostile to the West — Iran and North Korea — use the problems the US and the West have on their plate to cause them trouble elsewhere?

One of the tunes we are, perhaps, whistling is that Xi Jinping, China's president (a kind of more upmarkat Vladimir Putin) is getting very worried about the effect the Ukraine war will have on the global economy. It seems that China's wheat harvest this year will be terrible and it will have to import wheat whose price is soaring because Ukraine will not be able to produce as much.

China imports 70% of its oil and 40% of its gas. So it will pay a hell of a lot more than most on oil it uses. Russia will, of course be able to offload some of the oil and gas the West will no longer be getting on China — but, China is not sentimental and given that beggars can't be choosers it will be able to push down the price considerably. It certainly won’t be paying top rouble, besties with Russia or not.

Another dilemma is that in world trade, China does far more business with the US and the EU than with Russia: just $147bn with Russia last year but $828bn with the EU and $756bn with the US. What with sanctions flying around, China will really not want trade with the EU and the US to collapse - and the comparatviely piddly Russian trade wouldn't help.

A related embarrassment for Xi is that at the launch ceremony for the Winter Olympics, his Vlad the Lad came along and Xi proclaimed him to be his best mate. All fine and dandy but . . . Did Putin tell him that he was

 

planning to invade Ukraine? If he did, Xi will look very bad indeed, especially in view of all the problems it might cause China. And bearing that in mind, it we might speculate that tried to talk Putin out of it.

If he did not? If he knew but kept schtumm? Well, it makes the image he likes to portray as the wise, farsighted, all-knowing leader China needs look very silly. Farsighted? Not quite. Xi Will not be a happy bunny and might no longer want to be besties with Vladimir.

So how's it all going to end? Who knows?

On March 9, Russians forces shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol, in the south of Ukraine, Mr Xi. Several women were giving birth when the shells struck, but they survived because they were sheltering in the basement. Is this really the kind of thing you want the world to see you associated with, Mr Xi?