Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Five New Year resolutions

I'm off up to Scotland for Hogmanay, back online on the New Year when resolutions can be put into place. Here are five:

1. Stop googling to see what old writer friends have not achieved
2. Write an original story by quill pen and squid ink on hand-made paper and submit it to the Royal Academy summer show
3. Buy any computer software that turns a short story into an instant manga classic.
4. Confess to my aliases on Amazon over the year
5. Write for kids, like I vowed to remember to do when I was a kid

Happy 2007!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas ... and the Sally Army band played on

'Twas the Saturday before Christmas, and the Salvation Army band was blowing up a treat on the streets of Hampstead. The sound is instant nostalgia, coursing back through a stream of Christmases, nothing changed, the same carols in old arrangements, ladies and gentlemen of the same advancing ages in their black army uniforms with red trim, waving collecting tins.
First effect of the music ... some tiding of comfort and joy. Second effect ... I looked the other way and passed by the smiling lady and her tin. Third effect ... I stepped back, dropped in a pound, received a smile, felt a warm glow.
The hesitation stemmed from an occasion blogged five years ago ... in the old 'This Writing Life' section of my website. I sat through a Salvation Army Christmas Concert, but was hurt by that organization's lead among charities in the United States, seeking an exception to laws that banned them from excluding gay members. A Sally Army member wrote to me, upset by the blog, pointing out the work the 'Army' does in the battle against Aids. I didn't write back. I'd made my point, he'd made his. Why argue? We weren't going to change.
I'm sure, in fact, the Sally Army folk are good people, moved by faith and tradition to be out there doing their best for the world. It's curious to me how people can be driven towards regimentation by religious stirrings, odd to have ranks and uniforms, and unlikely that I share a world view with such people. But it takes all kinds to make a world ... and Hampstead was brightened at Christmas by their music.
Why did I step back though, really? I thought of my Mum, dead now for a few years. She loved Christmas, and the Salvation Army sound for her was a principle part of the tradition. What was not to like about the sound? Who's doing more good at Christmas, they with their shelters and food for the poor and music on the streets, me with my pc-driven 'I'm not giving' move as I managed the last of my Christmas shopping?
I dropped in my coin for Mum, for Christmas, for the wonder of joining in and being a part of things ... whatever your beliefs, Christmas strikes me now as a great time for being at peace, for letting go, for sharing.
Have a great and lovely holiday.

picture by Steve Tag

Friday, December 22, 2006

Here's a curious miscellany of a site ... liver transplants, Goethean science (that's what brought me in), anthroposophy, the rock group 'Yes', enneagrams. Awakenings might just stir a fresh thought or two over the Christmas break.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Biography and the cutting-room floor

I have a final chapter still to write of my J. S. Haldane bio, but what the heck. I've paused and stepped back to edit those earlier ones.
Now's the time to see the story flowing, to give the writing itself an extra dash of verve. It also, sadly, means some of the details I was most proud of finding get dropped from the narrative.
As the first-ever bio of J. S. Haldane, the need to present a compelling figure is vital. Were he one of the Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence types of figures, who have a fresh bio as each crop of university graduates grows up, those tiny details would become invaluable. Now they get in the way.
The virtue of the cutting-room floor in biography writing is that many things can drop into the footnotes.
*Here's one such footnote. the photo shows Haldane with his daughter Naomi (tpo grow up into the novelist Naomi Mitchison) on his knee, and son Jack (J. B. S. Haldane) leaning into him. Probably taken on the lawn of their home on St Margaret's Drive, Oxford in about 1901. Who, though, is the young man on the left. Any ideas?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Two Irish Plays

London gave me two beautiful Irish playgoing treats last week ... Frank McGuinness's Gates of Gold was a touching tale of old love between two theatricals, modelled on the manager and leading actor of Dublin's Gate Theatre. William Gaunt's performance as Gabriel was one extended deathscene played to the Gods ... as in the top level of the theatre even though this one in the miniature space of Trafalgar Studio 2). Grand to have a story of a triumph of gay love. Michelle Fairley playing the nurse was a fine character to have on your side.
The run of The Seafarer at the National Theatre continues. Catch it. Conor McPherson's last play, Shining City, thrilled me at the Royal Court. Its flow of language was one factor, though it also managed to evoke that spine-chilling thrill of the supernatural. The Seafarer is a step beyond, an Irish Christmas tale that spins a simple tale of a visitor coming to a house where four alcoholics hang out, all playing a game of cards. Somehow the greatest human warmth is conjured through the evening, a triumph of goodness, utterly moving.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Flags of our Fathers

I went to an early UK preview of Flags of our Fathers today, Clint Eastwood's take on the American capture of Iwo Jima during WW2. It was affecting as war carnage movies must be. Since I'm mid-flow in my own writing project, my own reaction is fuelled by that fact.
So I puzzle at the film's chronology. I can keep pace as it jumps from present-day to wartime, and even darts to and fro among those wartime events, but it was a strain. Odd too to have old actors play aged versions of the young ones .. who was who? We were meant to care for a character called Iggy at the end. Now who on earth was Iggy? I didn't know.
I did a survey of bestselling books some time back, in all genres, and one factor in all of them was straight chronological telling. The distorted version of chronology offered here seems a mistake.
The moral set out at the beginning was not followed through on either. We were told that in war heroes and villains are generally not those we take them to be. Interesting enough ... but there was no follow-through. The film had no villains.
Eastwood's clearly a master of the business though, so it was good to get an object lesson in how to turn a wartime conflict into a matter of domestic relationships - mostly in this instance by portraying the mothers waiting at home. The fears of the womenfolk on shore offered the same sort of thread to the film of The Perfect Storm. I was talking to the Bafta-winning screenwriter Paul Smith last night. He wanted to know about 'the relationships' of my biographical subject, J. S. Haldane. That's clearly a core question for screenwriters, something he searches for in a story. I'm working to bring the women of the story into my book, but the core relationship of JS's life was with his son. I must now make sure that I dramatize that clearly enough. There was a good deal of film interest in the proposal for the book. Now's the chance to put in some of those filmic buzz factors.
Flags of our Fathers was best when it dared to show the physical mutilation of war. I keep reading about it, am writing about gas warfare myself, but somehow seeing it still makes every difference.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Mentoring for creative writers


Over the last year I've been co-authoring a book with Sara Maitland (pictured) - seemingly the world's first book on mentoring for creative writers. It was commissioned through New Writing North, who stitched together a number of organizations to provide the necessary funding, and will be launched in 2007. A slimmer volume will also appear through the organization literature training.
I'll post more on this when the time comes. To write the book we interviewed a lot of the leading practitioners in the field - both the mentored, the mentors, and program officers. Among those I spoke with was Rebecca Swift at the Literary consultancy. They have now launched their own mentoring program - a commercial venture, but a number of Arts Council England (Ace) awards I believe are available at the beginning.
Mentoring for writers is becoming the new 'buzz' - I do see it as being very valuable. One way I would love to see it spread is by writers going out there and finding new voices, ones that have previously been distanced from the in-world of writing and publishing.
The cheery thing about the TLC venture is that it is to be run by Sara Maitland, who will assemble and direct the team of writers willing to act as mentors. She did a superb job directing a similar team for the Lancaster University / Crossing Borders scheme over the last few years, so this does promise to be a worthwhile venture. It's also distance learning, which makes it accessible for writers everywhere.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The British Library at one stroke

I've just been trying out Microsoft's newly launched Live Search Books. It's impressive - based largely on books scanned in from the British Library. Books are available for free download, in their entirety, and searchable by keywords which come up handily highlighted. Results don't seem particularly printable, but even so it is a valuable research tool.
I started with some real excitement - this revolutionary technique just in time as I push by J. S. Haldane biography through to its conclusion. With some relief, however, very little came up which I did not know about beforehand - a chapter by William James considering his work, and a few extra snippets about his time in a youth in the German university town of Jena.
It's a taste of things to come though, when so much initial research will be done from a home computer. I'm waiting to see how Microsoft makes money from it all.

Howard Davies and the moral code at the LSE


Howard Davies, the Director of the London School of Economics, gave the opening address before the presentation of the MSc degree to my nephew, among others, yesterday. He spoke about the School's distrust of academic league tables. One important such table is the amount of money people earn in year after graduating. The Greek students went on to do their national service that year, so pt down their annual income as 100 Euros. The LSE dropped five places as a result.
Before the presentations began, Howard Davies put out a personal plea for his graduating students. This is surely common in such ceremonies. 'You've been enormously privileged - now it's your turn to go out there and put your education to good use, please care for the world' is one possible line for such emotive farewells. Not on this occasion.
Should any market surveyor approach you to ask your salary, please put down the highest figure you can bring yourself to put, he told them. No-one will ever check.
'I thought the LSE was a hotbed for radical socialist thought,' I said to my right-wing nephew after the show. I'd spent a these years fearing he was misplaced. 'What happened?'
'That all went out with the sixties,' he replied.
Before his current job , Howard Davies was head of the Financial Services Agency, the UK's single financial regulator. Previously he was Deputy Governor of the Bank of England after three years as Director General of the Confederation of British Industry. 1987 to 1992 saw him as Controller of the Audit Commission. His whole official role has been one of enforcing financial probity. His rallying call to his graduating students is that no-one will even check, go out and lie on behalf of your School, because the amount you earn is what it's all about. In this week of 8.8 billion pounds of bonuses paid in the city, maybe he's simply jealous - and I suppose that in advocating lying he was at least being honest about his true values - but how sad, pitiful and desperate it all truly is.

Friday, December 08, 2006

'world-ever first' sentences

One of the curious facts I like about writing is that so many of the sentences you come up with are absolutely unique. No-one has ever written or spoken them before.
The sentences don't have to be weird, with odd made-up words and twisted grammar. In fact that last sentence is probably unique in the history of the world, as is this, and who knows maybe the first one too.
I like teaching the fact and getting kids to have a go. They don't generally go for simple, but try out such stuff as 'the polka-dotted dragon spat out the blue chrysanthemum'.
It's special, knowing your sentence is a world-ever first.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Omnivore Wars - The First Salvo

The Booksellers Association looks like offering a good guide through the thickets of digitization on their new blog Booksellers Association: Omnivore Wars %u2013 The First Salvo ... I'm intrigued to see how having the 'search inside' facility for the entire stock of the British Library will work as a research tool - it should radically change the process. The possibilities are exciting, a challenge to creativity: research is democratized, you don't need to be especially able or near a library to achieve good results. Then, with so much information, how do you marshal it to achieve a great story? So many biographies are worthy but tired ... perhaps attention will begin to switch from the depth of research and the arrangement of information to the quality of the writing in bringing a subject to life.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nonfiction - the lessons learned

Back to the National Archives in Kew today, following up research leads offered from a member of a Great War forum ... lesson one, the Net is a great interactive research tool. I've run forums in the past, but never thought of joining one till now. They are a potential hive of experienced, passionate, eager colleagues.

Today I found a new trove of material for my J.S.Haldane book, as regards the war - stuff I didn't find on my independent search through the catalogues. It turns out that a geat deal of the material is not catalogued at all - you simply need to rummage wider in a subject area. I had done that before, but not in the best subject area. So lesson two, catalogues are only a start.

In academia I learned, painfully sometimes, to apply real rigour to footnotes. Often in my eagerness to note things down and dive back into the next piece of material, my references this time around have not been that accurate. Lesson three, write down all the reference numbers for footnotes. I'm certainly not going to be getting them again.

Lesson four is a part of that--collect a bibliography as I go along. I've been meaning to, just as I've been meaning to note down the names of all those who have helped me for the acknowledgments. It is all reclaimable, but it would have been much easier to have done so along the way.

Lesson five, while I am about it -- collect written permission to use material from possible copyright holders met through the course of the research. I suspect I'll have to be writing letters in a month or two's time.

Lesson six of course is to keep a better accounting of the considerable expenditure, keep a daily diary of what I've been up to so the figures add up. As the costs of research start to match the advance, the accountancy question looms.

All that, of course, means being rational - and the rationale of writing a book is a quirky one. I'll know better next time. But of course I knew better this. Knowing and applying are such different things.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Drink and Writing and Me

The Puritan in me says writing and drinking don't go together. The realist says look at Dylan Thomas.
A friend came for lunch on Sunday. His wife and young daughter are away in America for the year, leaving him in Paris. 'How's it feel?' I asked him. 'Terrific,' he beamed. 'After 36 years of continuous child-rearing, it's wonderful. I get to do what I like. If I want to get up at 5 in the morning, I can do it.'
The same man got hepatitis last year so had to stay off drink for 6 months. He was stunned to notice how clear his mind became. 'Did anyone else notice?' I asked. No-one did.
He was left with a strict choice. Clear and working brain, or a return to his moderate drinking. Drink won.
Drink's odd for me. I love it, especially wines of note, but more than two glasses affects me. I get jollier of course, but wake in the night and that's it. No more sleep. University essays were frequently done in those early hours that clung on to the night before. I presumed the quality dropped somewhat, but at least they were written.
Suddenly I wonder. Were those in fact my better pieces? I'm meant to be monklike at the moment. My partner's away, I have a deadline looming, I'm writing about trench warfare, so go quiet, immerse yourself Martin, and get on with it.
That worked fine yesterday daytime ... apart from a trip out to the local Sainsbury's to stock up on wine at a sudden wondrous discount price, spending the loyalty points assembled over years. The evening was the Christmas Party of the Biographers' Club, in the Georgian Rooms at Fitzroy Square here in London. Champagne flowed. I flowed with it. Cheery stuff, champagne.
So I was up at two 0'clock of course. Awake for hours. I turned to yesterday's writing and hacked away at it. It seems I have nocturnal vision when it comes to editing. A few sections shone. Much was turgid. Out went the turgid and on I wrote. Maybe this is the way. Plod through the day, drink at night, be lucid and brilliant in the aftermath.
It's worth a shot. As part of my monklike routine I'm off to friend Emily Young's opening of her new sculpture show tonight. Chicken and wine afterwards. And tomorrow King's University has a 'life writing' lecture in the evening, followed by a reception. My deadline looks attainable after all.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Fighting shy

OK, enough's enough. My J.S.Haldane book stalled this week as I headed off to different archives around the country picking up more information. We got to August 4th 1914, Haldane's brother mobilizing the forces in the UK. This is one of my climactic scenes in the book ... and I've grown shy before it. It's so tough to do the period justice, and so much from that time is lost or hidden.
But tomorrow is time for a big breath and jumping in there. Haldane's been pretty much written out of the story, so at least I know my angle on him is gives me a tight focus.
That war has so many stories .... the sound archive in the Imperial War Museum let me listen in to a Scottish private recalling his days in the tunnels and with the gases, his life saved by one of Haldane's canaries. His recordings alone are a book in themselves.
By the way, for some powerful photographs of the war, click here.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Books of 2006


Travelling between Bulawayo and Harare in January, I read Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain. As Zimbabwe passed by the window of the bus, Mungoshi took me into the heart of the country. A true master.

Another journey, another book. Passing through Colorado Springs on my way to Pikes Peak this summer, I met with Rainbow Eagle and attended one of his lectures. His A Walk in the Woods gives his Peace Shield Teachings, and is a wonderful summation of Native American teachings, gathered from elders during many years of visits and conversations.


I found
Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing in London, and he did all the journeying from there. The book is cunningly packaged to appear as a memoir - I was excited to find nonfiction written with such a fresh, clear voice. They turn out to be stories after all, something harder to market, but are terrific tales of young Thai life. A happy writing find.