Wednesday, 9 July 2014

OH CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN ...



All Corduroys and Blow-waves

 


The great script writers Galton & Simpson once provided a script entitled The Publicity Photographs for Hancock’s Half Hour. In that memorable episode, Hancock is introduced by Sid James to ‘society photographer’ Hilary Saintclair, played by Kenneth Williams. Hancock dismisses Saintclair as being ‘all corduroys and blow-waves’, telling him “I’ve come about the snaps” to which Saintclair angrily responds “Snaps! Snaps? I paint with light!”

    Until a few years ago, as a jobbing writer, Hilary Saintclair had secured my mental image of the modern poet. Yet after wandering lonely as a cloud, in 2008, I began a three year contract as a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund at Lincoln University, helping students with their essays. There I shared a small office with a real modern poet, Michael Blackburn. Until then, I had regarded poetry as some prohibited subdivision of writing, governed by indissoluble rules. As an amateur musician, I had always written songs, yet songs have rhymes and choruses. I can rhyme all the time and that’s fine, yet much of the best poetry I studied did not rhyme. Playing my CDs of Dylan Thomas in the car, I despaired. I read Neruda, Eliot and Leonard Cohen. How do you lose your inhibitions and reach such emotional heights? I studied my new office colleague’s many books and pamphlets, and even bought Stephen Fry’s somewhat dispiriting book, The Ode Less Travelled, which nailed the pedantic colours of Iambic pentameter, villanelles and scansion to the mast. But I persisted, wrote poetry every day, and showed some of it to my neighbour, the poet and award-winning playwright Kevin Fegan. The result was that Kevin actually asked if I would co-author a book with him. This was published as a work sponsored by the Arts Council, Iron In The Blood, a collection of poems and prose based on the industrial history of the Derbyshire village of Ironville. Shortly after that I won a national competition with the website Poetcasting.com with a poem about the tsunami which had devastated the Indonesian coast. Thus I abandoned ‘the rules’ and broke the mental lock on a new zone (to me) of creativity.

    There’s no money in poetry, but unlike many branches of writing, it does get you out and about. I was recently asked to give a reading at a travelling poetry slam called The Lyric Lounge, a veritable three-ring circus of performance poets aged 18 to 80. I’m doing another stint later this year in Nottingham. It’s terrific fun. I’m also extremely proud that my home town, Hull, has been made City of Culture for 2017. In fact, after living in the Midlands for 28 years, I’m selling up here and moving back. As well as Andrew Marvell, Hull inspired Philip Larkin, so I’ve written a collection of poems about the city. Yet recently the old doubts about poetic prowess bubbled to the surface. I thought I understood Larkin, but then I read the following, by John Osborne, Director of American Studies, University of Hull. He’s the author of Radical Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery:

“…Larkin developed a set of poetic techniques that allowed him to instantiate unfixity … ellipsis, a four act structure with closing reversal, asymmetrical stanza lengths … a battery of disaggregative linguistic devices … split similes, negative qualifiers, oxymora and rampant paronamasia …”

I’ve not yet got to grips with rampant paronamasia, but I do recall something the irascible Larkin said about such studies; “I can't understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: It's like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”

    Despite the semantic challenges of ‘unfixity’ and ‘disaggregative’ linguistics, poetry, especially in performance, is on the rise. Even my local folk club in Mansfield features poets every week. In print, things are not quite as positive. In 2013 one of the UK's most energetic independent publishers, Salt, cut back on publishing individual collections in favour of anthologies, much to the regret of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and former laureate Andrew Motion. But with the rise and rise of the literary festival, plus the aggressive background clamour of rap and hip hop, this branch of the spoken word is rapidly gaining ground. How many of us tuned in to see Tom Hollander not only playing Dylan Thomas in A Poet in New York, but actually reading a newly discovered Thomas poem on BBC’s Newsnight? With the centenary commemoration of the Great War in full flight, the works of Owen, Sassoon and others are being re-launched to a new generation. The general public have a latent interest in poetry. It’s our job as writers and performers to puncture that veil because much of Britain’s attitude to poetry is a century out of date. Although some Radio 4 listeners still have an aversion to ‘regional accents’ reality is sweeping such snobbery away, thanks to voices such as Ian McMillan, Simon Armitage and Roger McGough. And let’s face it, if Pam Ayres can continue to tour and make a good living, there’s hope for us all.

   Writing poetry won’t make you rich. Poets are immune to Samuel Johnson’s quip that ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’. For those of us still on that treadmill hoping to write that one big blockbuster, writing a couple of decent poems every week is the literary equivalent of a sweaty session in the gym. Performing poetry live is an exhilarating experience, and a long way from corduroys and blow waves. In fact, I hope that one day, I may be able to paraphrase Robert Benchley …

    “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for poetry, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous …”

   

 

 

 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Monday, 7 July 2014

Writing in No Man's Land


Footloose and Agent-free.


Frank Sinatra once said “Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.”  No doubt many of you reading this will have an agent. If so, treasure them, kneel at their feet, kiss their knees. They hold the big shiny key which unlocks that tall steel gate between penury and making a living. In 2005 I parted from my agent. It was amicable enough. We’d done three books together, collected a few royalty cheques, but my book proposals became too outlandish and platforms for my work dried up. Thus I became my own, self-employed ‘hustler’. It worked a couple of times. I negotiated a Literature Grant with the Arts Council, and pulled off an un-agented contract with Constable and Robinson. Yet I realise now that saying goodbye to my agent was the commercial equivalent of a suicide note.

   It is expected that when writers write about their craft that they should provide aspiring scribes with a sense of uplifting inspiration. The rewards, the glittering prizes. J.K. Rowling’s millions, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones - 5 HBO seasons - wow! Another Dan Brown blockbuster, and, income wise, who wouldn’t want to emulate Stephen King when he claimed “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” But dump your agent - without having another waiting in the wings -  and you’ll emulate a reduced Tesco sandwich on the cusp of its sell-by date. The writer + agent = publisher = MSS assessment equation is the one Einstein never tackled.

   So the question is - what are agents looking for? According to writer’sdigest.com, initially it’s an impressive query letter. I’ve laboured over such appeals for attention without success. Is it my work? Possibly. But I figure it’s something else. I’m 71. I’ve been writing full time for 18 years, and before that, part-time for 30 years. Although I have 14 books, including biography, non-fiction, fiction and poetry to my name, no titles have ever sold more than 6,000 copies worldwide. Therefore the bulk of my income has been earned writing magazine features, PR, and countless research projects for the music industry. This is not a good CV for any agency, and it confirms that I was lucky to have ever had an agent at all. Yet that doesn’t stop you from constantly searching for that one brave literary Svengali who might just take a risk. In 2010 I thought I was about to by-pass the slush pile.

    Writing East Midlands organised a Writer’s Convention at De Montfort University in Leicester. The advance publicity offered writers the opportunity to send in a synopsis and three chapters of a work in progress. There would be a final shortlist of ten of the submitted MSS, and the lucky authors would be granted a 15 minute meeting with ‘a major London Literary Agent’ to discuss said work. I was one of the lucky ten with a WW2 novel set in Germany. My interview came at the end of a nervous Saturday afternoon. I was ushered into a quiet office in the English faculty and there, open on the table, was my work. The young woman (I estimated she was in her early 20s) from the London agency apologised, saying that her boss, the ‘senior’ agent had been unable to make it, but my work had been read and assessed, and this meeting was the result. I was then bombarded with a stream of negative criticism, all delivered with a sweet smile.

   “This work is conceited.” I asked what she meant. “The central character telling the story in your novel is a writer. That is a literary conceit.” I was puzzled by this. But the critique continued covering various points, which were no doubt valid, and as my fifteen fraught minutes drew to a close I asked the question “So why was I chosen and why am I here?” She responded “To tell you that you can’t write fiction.” I picked up my MSS, we shook hands, and feeling about as popular as a skunk at a barbecue, I skulked off to the car park and drove home. I totally re-wrote the book, removed the conceit, and two months later re-submitted it to the agency. Needless to say, I had no reply. If there was anything which would put you off looking for another agent, this was it.

   However, I’ve kept on trying, mainly with non-fiction, but the usual response is ‘We are not taking on any new clients at this time’.

   Today, in my self-created no-man’s land, I’m still scraping a meagre living, but if there are any youthful, novice writers reading this, don’t be put off. Agents and publishers are, in the main, more interested in young, photogenic authors because they’re a better long-term investment. They’re less inclined towards irascible, self-opinionated pensioners on their last legs who misguidedly imagine the world owes them a living. Yet I’m not downhearted. I’m still fulfilling my vocation, because getting up every day and spending ten hours writing remains a pleasure and a privilege. I’ve found that just surviving is a noble fight. At least these days there’s the commercial cul-de-sac of self-publishing, a territory where ‘literary conceit’ (and other sins) is actively encouraged. And that, fellow authors, is the new no man’s land - the world of Amazon, Xlibris and Lulu, where you could well end up if you ditch your agent.   

   Most writers begin their careers fuelled by dreams. ‘Making it’ is part of it all; will I get reviewed, pay off the advance? Writing in no man’s land is the same as writing anywhere else. I don’t think he was writing about agents, but Hemingway summed it up;
    ‘A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in changes but his problem remains the same …’ Thank heavens I don’t own a shotgun.

 

LIVING WITH CONSPIRACY

CONSPIRACY THEORY

 
They never went to the moon, you know.
It was all mocked up in a studio.
They paid the astronauts to stay schtum
And filmed it in an aquarium.
There are aliens in area 51
Where experiments are going on
To create a hybrid human being
The weirdest creature ever seen.

There’s pyramids up there on Mars
Built by Egyptians from the Nile
Where a big stone face
looks down from space
with an enigmatic smile.
And 9/11? That grim illusion?
Creation of some dark collusion.

We are ruled by big green lizards,
Revealed by David Icke,
They’re called the Annunaki,
But can they ride a bike?
Cameron and Osborne,
Boris Johnson and the Queen
Amphibian shape-shifters,
As well as Mr. Bean.

Triangles and long cigars
Flying disks from distant stars
There’s UFOs all shapes and sizes
Over Warminster and old Devizes
Where Reg Presley’s ghost still walks the fields
To seek corn circles shaped like wheels
Whilst in tunnels deep below the ground
Zombies stir without a sound.

In Whitehall and in Washington
The Illuminati soldier on
As Freemasons, gloved and aproned keep
The policemen of the world asleep
And beneath the tip of this iceberg
The world is run by Bilderburg.

Should this keep us awake at night?
Imagine - Einstein could be right
Are there more dimensions than we see?
Do we live in a conspiracy?
Are we something else beyond ourselves
Alongside Bigfoot, fairies, elves?

Are there monsters in the Serengeti
Is there really a hairy Yeti?
One thing’s for sure, we need not surmise
We’re governed by greed and spoon-fed lies
Our attention diverted by flickering screens
Watched and controlled by anonymous beings.

Friday, 27 June 2014

GREEDY PIGS AROUND THE TROUGH


WILL YOU PAY £10 TO SEE YOUR GP?

I came into the world weighing a hefty 9lbs one afternoon in April 1943. To facilitate this painful intrusion, my mother had to save up for several weeks to get the Midwife’s fee together. Back then, any Doctor’s visit could pose a cash flow problem for a working class family, but by the time I was 5, I was saved from the deathly rigours of double pneumonia because on the 5th July 1948 the NHS came into existence, funded by taxation, a humane, high quality and cost efficient way of keeping Britain healthy.

Yet the corporate world and half of our political establishment fail to see it this way. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and to them, with their shares in profit-driven companies such as BUPA, Virgin Care, Circle, and Serco, they are already eyeing up our beloved NHS not as a benefit to the public, but as another cash cow to add to their list of acquisitions such as the Royal Mail and other once proud public services.

In June this year, a motion was put to the Royal College of Nurses; it was “That this meeting believes that a fixed fee should be charged for GP appointments”. But the King’s Fund and the think tank, Reform, spurred on by a Labour Peer (!), take this further, suggesting we not only pay £10 to see our GP, but £10 for every night we spend in hospital, and that terminal patients should be means tested. This nasty lurch back into the 1920s was opposed by BMA GPs, one of whom, Dr. Laurence Buckman, saw it as “Survival of the richest, not treatment of the sickest.”


With an election due, David Cameron’s pledges from 2010,
"No frontline cuts", "no top-down NHS reorganisations", have been erased from his party’s website. Since then, 5,870 NHS nurses, 7,968 hospital beds, a third of ambulance stations, have been cut. Every day, ignoring these figures, the Coalition media machine ensures a steady flow of NHS ‘horror’ stories; people left on trolleys, tragic deaths. The insinuation being that the NHS is ‘too expensive’ and, of course, if it is privatised, everything will be just fine. So, how expensive is our NHS? Even according to the Americans, it’s a bargain. The Commonwealth Fund, an internationally respected U.S.A. foundation, analysed countries’ health systems recently. It ranked the UK first by quality, though spending less than 10 of the 11 countries surveyed.
All GPs are already being forced into large groups called ‘consortiums’. They will be handed most of the NHS budget (£80 billion) to ‘buy’ health care for their patients, but have no public accountability. All hospitals must become independent businesses (called ‘Foundation Trusts’) competing to sell their services to the consortiums. Private health companies will be encouraged to bid against hospitals for consortium contracts. A massive £20 billion is being cut from the NHS at the same time.
The GP's leaflet says:
This legislation will create a two tier American-type health system where those who can afford it top-up with private health care whilst the poor and sick receive second rate treatment in a fragmented and shrunken public system.

The father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevin,  rejected private insurance, charges, privatisation and competition, explaining why the NHS had been established on the principle - free to patients at the point of delivery. He wrote “. . . no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”. The City, politicians, bankers and shareholders have had everything their own way since 1979. They’ve gobbled up gas, electricity, water, the railways, telecoms, all of which we once owned. Yet enough is never enough when you’re a billionaire. Is it too much to ask them that they leave this one, precious bit of Britain in the hands of the people who own it?
sources: Mike Somerton, Hull Daily Mail, Roy Lilley, NHS Managers Net, The New Statesman.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

CABINET PUDDINGS


WHAT DO YOU MAKE?


I often get sick and angry at those TV documentaries about great architecture when presenters like Dan Cruickshank and others stare breathlessly up at vaulted ceilings and tell us something on the lines of 'In 1217, Henry (fill in the King of your choice) built this magnificent monuments to man's abiding faith in God..." Well, sorry, Dan, but he didn't. Kings and politicians might come up with ideas, and raise the capital, but they make bugger all. Our millionaire cabinet, for example, probably wouldn't know what a pointing trowel or a chisel looked like, yet everything around them power, water, transport, the very stuff which keeps life ticking over, is made by and supplied by millions of people who work with their hands and brains for an annual salary which is a tiny fraction of what these self-satisfied plutocrats bank in a month. It drives me to verse.

That Downing Street drone keeps polluting the air
‘Hard-working tax-payers’ ‘Benefits cheats’
And yet there’s a question which beats like a drum
Come, politician and answer us this:
What do you make?
The house that you live in, the clothes that you wear,
Your Nanny’s new shoes, your tables and chairs,
The power in your socket, the gas in your range,
The fuel in your Aga, the tyres on your car,
The truckers delivering both near and far
The milkman, the postman, the doctor the nurse,
Bus and train drivers even those with a hearse?
Come, politician, answer us this:
What do you make?
Kings built no cathedrals, just labouring hands
No Lords were bricklayers, no Dukes shovelled sand
No debutantes, bankers or consultants built ships
And yet the same drivel still slops from your lips
Into the poor’s wounds you rub the old salt,
Those without work can be blamed, ‘it’s their fault’
To make the rich richer, you pay the poor less,
So what do you make? It’s time to confess.
You make dividends, money and profits galore,
Cold fingers in pies as you privatise more
Keep blurting your hogwash from Parliament’s floor
and squeal like stuffed pigs if we show you the door.
But we don’t understand, we’re all scroungers and thick,
So what do you make?
You make us all sick.

Friday, 30 May 2014

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO NOW?


Another Book Emerges: Now What?
I’ve been working on Empire of Thieves steadily for six months. This week, I completed it, and after a bit more pruning and editing I have to decide what to do with it. Of course, designing the pages, choosing the text and lay-out yourself rarely works. It still ends up typographically as a dog's dinner of scattered indents and inexplicable line-breaks. That's why publishers employ eagle-eyed copy editors. I'm just a writer. Yet a writer, even with the current parlous state of publishing, and even after all these years, you still imagine that out-dated scenario where one writes a proposal, a synopsis, sending it off with two sample chapters to the publisher you fondly imagine ‘does this kind of stuff’ and waiting for a response. Of course, without a literary agent between you and said publisher, there will be no response other than your package returned un-read (or un-opened) or perhaps, if you’re really lucky, a rejection slip. Yet we keep writing. Five of my published books got into print via the traditional route; agent-publisher-response- deal offered; books in shops. However, such an option is long gone. But that’s no excuse to cease writing.

A lot has been said about would-be authors loading their works up on Amazon as e-books. Some, apparently, have even made a lot of money. Frankly, I can’t see how. I could carry on in the self-publishing cul-de-sac I’ve entered with other works. It’s pleasant to be able to design your own books, right down to the covers, get an ISBN number and eventually have a nice fat glossy printed copy in your hand. But of course, this method ruins what remaining vestiges of your vague literary ‘reputation’ still exist, and that work you devoted so much time and research to will vanish into the non-commercial ether, never to be seen again.
With Empire of Thieves I’d aimed purely at that Dan Brown/Jack Higgins post-war netherworld of unanswered questions, myth and military mystery. A bold, educated hero, robbery, a good woman, art, dark skulduggery and, inevitably, Nazis. Seeing as they’d made Valkyrie and The Monuments Men  as reasonably successful movies, I decided to fully indulge my abiding fascination with the Third Reich and the theft of art and gold. Is it a ‘thriller’? I don’t know. Perhaps only a few people, those close souls who get a chance to see it, will tell me. But they are friends, not critics.

here's the back cover blurb;
As the Russians closed in on Berlin in April 1945, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, second in command of the SS, ordered his troops to rob Germany’s National Depository, the Reichsbank. As well as the tons of gold bullion, millions in currency, jewels and other valuables, the Nazis already had billions of dollars’ worth of art, stolen from doomed Jewish families, hidden away in the mountains of Bavaria and Austria.
70 years later, Kurt Kohler, art hunter and researcher, travels the world looking for works to retrieve and return to their owners’ descendants. But when an old farmer tries to sell a batch of ancient gold coins, Kohler is called in and the hidden history of one of the most feared organisations of the 20th century is revealed. Could it possibly be true that Reichsf├╝hrer-SS, Heinrich Himmler, who supposedly committed suicide with a cyanide capsule at Luneberg, Germany in May 1945 was not Himmler at all, but his terrified double? The Himmler file at the UK’s National Archives is embargoed until 2045. But Kurt Kohler unearths the truth … and much more besides.
The book could be an ill-conceived pile of bullshit, but my nose is still buried in it so I’m used to the stink. Thankfully, no-one reads this blog so this occasional exercise in navel-gazing is simply here for future reference for anyone curious enough to seek out obscure writers. So, I shall order my printed copy of Empire of Thieves, put it on the shelf with the others, the successful books (there have been some) and the great un-read. The work will be like those calcified bodies they found in the ruins of Pompei. People will open the pages, read a few paragraphs and ask “What the bloody hell was he thinking of?” The answer will be simple. I just wanted to entertain.