Typing abyss more like!

I’m ‘typing up’, into the computer, a typescript manuscript of a circa 20 year old story. It’s nowhere to be found on the computer, or the memory sticks…though in fact, it might reside on a floppy disc (along with who knows how many short stories from that period). Of course the hard copy is single line printed, just to make it harder…and at page 12 of the MS I’m already on page 17 of the new digital version. There are about 55 pages of the MS.

It’s easy to forget what a lot of ‘physical’ work there was to producing, revising, and copying MSS in the old fashioned way. There was a time when stories had to be typed on a ‘typewriter’, with mistakes being ‘tipexed out’, and maybe a couple of progressively fading copies made with carbon paper at the same time (before even photocopying was possible). This story was written originally on a computer, but must have got lost between technology upgrades!  Once it’s up as a word document, I can shift stuff around, edit, add (I am a putter in), delete (I do take stuff out too!) and all that, but this initial copying up is driving me crazy! There’s also that haunting question, of Is it really worth it? 

The fact is, I do like the story. The fact is, I’m not sure how good the telling is! I’m ‘correcting’ as I go, but don’t want to lose the cast of mind that was telling the story in the first place (and which I probably lost a decade or more ago). Mind you, a Tobias Wolff collection introduction explains how 30 years after first publication, he has made ‘improvements’ to some of the stories… and if, like me in one case, you have the earlier versions, you can see he has done just that (and it’s instructive!).

So maybe I plough on (and resist the temptation to distraction activities like this!).

Perhaps it’s a function of the ageing process, but getting started again after New Year seems incrementally more difficulty each time I attempt it. On the other hand, slowing down for the Year’s Ending hiatus gets easier, more attractive, and profoundly somnolent. We had a brief discussion here at Todd Close about the nature of ‘lies in’ (which are different in form and substance – mostly – to other types of lies!).

My take on it was, and is, that to be ‘lying in’ (in a non-confinement sort of way) you have to be awake, and therefore conscious of doing it. It’s no use sleeping late, which is an entirely different animal…perhaps not even an animal at all! I’m minded of Robert Frost’s poem (his poems often mind me, and I often mind them), in which he speculates about the kind of sleep he might be about to take: ‘…This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is./Were he not gone,/The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his/Long sleep, as I describe it coming on,/Or just some human sleep.’ Something like that, it seems to me, is often at this time of year the sort of sleep I’m dreaming of (read that in a slow drawl if you will).

Frost’s lines are taken from the poem ‘After Apple Picking’, which I, like him, had done a deal of during the autumn months, though I have no cider-apple heap to feed.

None of which is what I’m trying to get around to say.

The last time I went on Facebook was Christmas Eve, and for the discernible future it will stay that way. I hope to keep the blog going, at least through the Spring and Summer.

With an amount of cajoling and a hint of encouragement, and a deal of certainty that the time had come, I made a post-Christmas assault on the detritus of a decade or two on and under the office shelves. It’s amazing what you find that has been put away for more than ten years ago in the hope that it’ll come in useful one day (and it will be even more amazing to discover how much of it, having been discarded, would have come in useful after eleven years or more!)

The prize, if that’s not too ambitious a word, the prize found so far has been a manuscript, or rather a typescript. It dates from before 2010 I think, because I’ve used those pesky, messy speech marks, which I gave up around that year. I haven’t read it all through yet, but it’s a fat, hard copy print-out of something that went missing (except for a few fragments) during a change of computers about two machines ago! It’s a story, or rather a series of stories, a shaggy dog novel – well, even short story writers have to have some sort of apprenticeship before they can tackle really short stuff – set in the Stone Age, and from the thickness of the file, unless there are multiple printings of the first segment, it might just all be there, all 17,000 words of it!

The question is, what do I do with it? I sent out a similarly aged long story – a novel I’d have to call it – not so long ago, but it came back to me ‘not wanted on voyage’. This one, if I remember rightly was looked at by some sort of agency – a freebie for local writers I was lucky enough to get – or at least fifty pages of it were. Let’s hope the file isn’t just those fifty pages, because I can’t even remember where the story began, let alone where it ended up. Besides, I wouldn’t have the mindset to re-write it after all this time. The agency rather praised it, but I always thought that must be them bullshitting me. The first couple pages though, do read quite nicely…..

At least it’s a distraction, and somebody who has come to the point in their life where they not only accept the need to clear out the detritus in the upstairs office, but has actually started doing it is a somebody who is in mortal need of a distraction..

 

 

 

I found a file of print-offs of old stories. Several of them are no longer on the computer, or any of the memory sticks. Mostly they were the ‘Hawk Dream’ stories, from 1999 and the few years after. But among them was a quite different piece of work, and it too, not showing up on the computer.

I could remember the title, but not the story, until I re-read it, but even then I found it a surprising story, with a tone and vehemence, a directness, that I could not recall. It’s called Bomber’s Moon, and involves a retired railwayman, living in an old people’s home, and recalling his youth in the Second World War.

It’s a sexual story, posing what seems to me now a Romantic view of hetero-sexuality, yet a potent one, and a Romanticism that my generation was brought up to venerate. The setting, in time and space, draws on stories that were told to me by a man called Hubert, with whom I worked night shifts in the cramped cabin on the forecourt of the Tebay West Service Station on the north bound carriageway of the M6. That was back in the early 1970s, before the self service petrol station had become the norm. Through the long hours of the night, with only a handful of customers to serve, we read our paperbacks (a colleague brought in plastic bags full of sci-fi stories), dozed, chatted or simply fretted the shift away. Hubert reminisced about his war. He had been a railwayman, categorised as a ‘reserved occupation’, which meant he was more useful to the nation staying at home and doing his job, than he would have been getting his head blown off in a foreign field. The Shap Banker helped trains climb the gradient from Tebay to Shap Summit, and returned as a ‘light engine’, to wait for the next train, passing as it did so the perimeter of Shap Wells Hotel where senior German Officers had a rather cushy Prisoner of War camp. I met one of those officers once, whilst working on the forecourt at Tebay itself. He was a prosperous looking middle aged man, with a high-class German car, and he was looking for the Hotel, to revisit his wartime memories. I gave him directions, and he gave me a large tip!

It was Hubert’s stories that provided the background to Bomber’s Moon, along with other snippets, other memories, and a little imagination (which is all I have).

I find it a tough story to read, though not because of the writing. It’s the content, not the form that shocks me, and that’s perhaps as it should be. Martin Amiss writes somewhere of each generation of writers saying in effect, ‘it’s like this’, and each generation’s assertion will have moved on along the trajectory of human perception.  Yet, I can find you a dozen stories from as far back as the Middle Ages, and earlier, that nail something we would recognise as being perfectly us!

Another thought came out of the batch of twenty year old stories, which was that they raised the possibility that my writing hasn’t improved at all over that time, but only my ability to analyse how it does and doesn’t work. The good stories (if there are any) are good for similar reasons, and the bad ones (and there are some!) are bad for similar reasons; and that’s not entirely good (or bad).

But what shall I do with Bomber’s Moon?

I considered doing a New Year posting, but as I’d done a New Year’s Eve one, I thought it might de trop.

No, let’s not start with a joke.

2020, it seems to me, with a label like that, must be The Year of Perfect Hindsight.

New Year, for me is always a time of reflection. But how reliable is the mirror? How long ago was it last silvered, and who by? (OK, by whom) And when did you last give the glass a polish? Eh?

My wife, being a southerner isn’t big on New Year. What’s it for? She asks. I tell her, it’s the World’s Birthday. It’s not some local religious celebration, overwritten time and again by incomers, revisionists, apologists for a latest fad, dogmatic stick-in-the-muds: it’s what happens to a planet that has the International Date Line painted on it, or people who watch the stars for sufficiently long and carefully, to notice that another circuit has been completed. (Did you know that there were Stone Age ‘savages’ in North America who had noticed the nineteen year cycle of the moon? Now, that’s what I call paying attention).

And here am I struggling with a metaphorical mirror that may or may not be distorting what I’m trying to see. And here’s you, on a Sunday morning, the first one of the year, with nothing better to do than read about it.

Welcome to the year of Perfect, 2020 Hindsight! I hope it was a good breakfast.

BHD in a mirror, in Rome, c2014

2020…year of Perfect Hindsight, and it brings forth the first BHD publication of the year: http://centmagazine.co.uk/uniform-stuffed/

Always a joy to be in .Cent magazine.

I received several literary presents this Yule – which was cool (no rhyme intended).

One of them I’d specially requested. That was the Fulcrum Press 1968 Collected Poems of Basil Bunting.

I know very little about Basil Bunting, and less about his poetry, which might surprise (if you don’t know me) because I spent a working day with him forty years ago – including a pub lunch – when he was being filmed reading the poem I wanted the book because of! That is the poem Briggflats.

Not remembering the poem, or the poet to be honest (I couldn’t have picked him out of a line up), didn’t prevent me from remembering that it had been a ‘great’ poem I had been in the presence of…and stumbling across a second hand copy of the collection in a Sedbergh second-hand bookshop I knew the time had come for me to grapple with it at last.

I’ve read it only a couple of times in the last couple of days, but have already been gripped by it. It’s the language, of course, which rather eclipsed the narrative from that opening line onwards: ‘Brag, sweet tenor bull,’

There are so many lines, so many sentences and fragments of sentences that stand out. On the second reading I started to pull out a few of the most striking:

‘Delight dwindles. Blame stays the same.’

‘It is easier to die than to remember.’

‘Love is a vapour. We’re soon out of it’.

‘No worn tool / whittles stone;’

 

James (?) Fenton, I think it was, who said that poetry had a duty to be memorable, and this poem, over and over again, fulfils that duty. In longer sequences though, it’s not just a matter of hammering out a punchy, pungent maxim. Language is used like a whip: flexible, taut, cutting:

‘He lies with one to long for another, / sick, self-maimed, self-hating, / obstinate, mating / beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born.’

 

On the dust cover there is a comment from Bunting that pleased me no end, because he echoes one of my own hobbyhorses about oetry, and writing in general: ‘Poetry, like music, is to be heard.’ He expands on this theme in what is virtually a micro-essay. My thinking, at the moment, is that I should read Briggflats aloud into a recording machine, and listen to it. There is a recording of the poet reading it, but my guess is, Bunting wanted every reader to be the ‘some voice’ that ‘brings it to life’….. ‘as real sound in the air.’

Where writing is concerned the value is often revealed in the length of time over which it is being unearthed as a treasure rather than as a piece of junk.

Happy New Year!

I’ve been watching the birds on the bird-feeders. They come, as many as twenty at a time: blue tits, great tits, long tailed tits, coal tits, chaffinches, a couple of robins; occasional goldfinch pairs, rare bullfinches; intermittently the local woodpecker, the crow gang. Mostly, though, it’s sparrows, whole families of them, ten or twenty strong – must be their mums and dads, grandmas and granddads, aunts, uncles, cousins and some removed. These noisy rabbles don’t just tackle the hanging feeders, the wild bird seed, the niger seed, the fat balls and the tray of bread crumbs and scraps. They go too for all that’s fallen to the ground. They busy-body among the stems and dead head flowers below; they scutter across the patio’s false bricks; only their dull brown backs show, as if they were infestations of mice, of small rats even….

I watched an episode of Hazell on Talking Pictures TV last week. Shown during the period 1978/79, I’d never heard of it, but then, I didn’t have a TV for much of that time.

The period was the fag end of the last ‘real’ Labour government. Inflation was running high, unemployment was growing, strikes and strife had become normal. The government’s attempts to help those on low incomes, and the unemployed – flat rate wage increases and Job Creation schemes – were being fought to a standstill by the Trade Unions (to ‘protect the differentials’ and because ‘an unemployed man is a bullet to be fired against the government’, it was explained to me).

Hazell is a private detective, working for a smart bu haggard looking woman. He’s an ex-cop, for reasons not explained in the episode I watched. He has a working class sidekick, vulkgar to the point of grossness, and the two parley in a London argot that might, for all I know, be spot on! The sidekick is scruffy and flat capped, but Hazell himself is rather butch, with big hair and a nice line in jackets. All the clothes are eye-boggling to the modern viewer, and so are the interior designs, the cars etc. Most of all though, it’s the attitudes and language that date the programme.

There’s no hero in Hazell, only a shabby, vain, self obsessed protagonist who operates in a dog maul dog world where morality looks like sentimental, or petulance. Class is a matter of consumption. The ‘comic’ asides are usually vulgar, and often explicitly sexual. What interested me most about this tawdry second-rate dump of a world was that it was not being presented with the satirical irony of hindsight, such as we saw in Life on Mars, but as a piece of straight observation.

It’s worth watching, if only to see what we have dragged ourselves out of over the last forty years, at least temporarily. In those days prices rose so fast, spurred on by the oil crisis and leap-frogging wage claims, that the increase of cost in the BBC Shopping Basket was big enough and quick enough to make a weekly, or even daily point of interest. The practice of printing prices on food packaging and on the dust covers of books was dropped for most of the decade. There still is a BBC Shopping Basket, but you don’t hear about it so often. Why would you, when it changes so slowly?

Hazell, though it can’t have know it at the time, turns out to be not just a voice from the past, but a warning.

Rest ye merry, ladies and gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!

Happy Christmas (or whatever you were brought up to think of it as)

The most recent collection of short stories from Brindley Hallam Dennis

A sequence of poems by Mike Smith tells the story of Martin, whoever he might be.

Old stories gathered into a short collection from Brindley Hallam Dennis’ back catalogue.