Thursday, 10 April 2014

AND THE WINNER IS ...


When one of your works has been submitted for consideration in a local Annual Book Awards contest, you do tend to harbour quiet hopes that you might even make it to the short list. Of course, with odds about the same as winning the lottery, it’s never going to happen. Yet the thought in the months approaching the announcement of a short list does keep a candle flickering.



    Yet the reality of writing for a living teaches you, after a few years, that the only award you can expect is the one you give yourself for every new year of literary survival. I get all the regular newsletters, Writing East Midlands, Nottingham Writer’s Studio, National Association of Writers in Education, The Author from the Society of Authors and The Journalist from the NUJ. They are always bristling with award schemes where the writer can submit their work and be considered for plaudits presented by our peers. I did win a poetry competition about 5 years ago, and I once got a generous literature award from the Arts Council, but that’s about it.  The last award I was entered into by my publisher was the East Midlands Book Award. The book was the kind of work the literati would never touch with a bargepole, The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena (2013, Constable & Robinson/Little, Brown Inc.) Sales-wise, it has done remarkably well both in the UK, Canada, USA and the Antipodes, and has sold enough to justify a re-print. But despite great reviews, this is not the kind of garbage literary judges read. Literary arbiters are, in the main, serious novelists who usually have the prefix ‘celebrated’ before their names. They have little or no time to waste reading the kind of quasi cod history or popular culture which floats my creaking boat. That said, I’m sure they wouldn’t give an award to Dan Brown (nor would I) or Jeffrey Archer or anyone else of that ilk whose work dominates the shelves at every airport W.H. Smith.

   There’s another reason, though, for a ‘D’ list writer such as myself to not try and enter for awards. The fact is, not reaching even the grey outside area of a slight passing mention, your confidence is eroded and your self-loathing is cranked up a few gears. In athletic terms, you might say that award winners are the Usain Bolts of writing whilst people such as myself are happy to run along fast enough to catch a bus. Sour grapes? Yeah, hell, why not. You spend 80 hours per week writing 2,000 words per day and enter into meticulous research, and even with the absence of an agent, you get yourself a deal. You make a meagre living, yet have no idea who your readers are, and work alone in cold isolation. Sometimes you think ‘I wonder when I’ll get a pat on the back?’ But it never happens. So I cancel all these dog in the manger emotions out every morning at 9 am when I stare at today’s blank page. Once I’ve written that first paragraph, I’ve awarded myself.
     Therefore Whitbread, Booker and all will never worry me, and the knowledge that I can’t write to the expected intellectual literary standards of the TLS or London Review of Books or that my work will never grace the review pages of the Guardian or Observer has finally ceased to bother me. In 1956, when I was 13, I promised myself that one day I would write for a living. It took 32 jobs until I finally made the break and began in 1997, but I got there in the end. So there’s the award; the IWP: (I was Published) it’s a one-off, with only one entrant, me. Well, as the author of Peyton Place, Grace Metalious said: ‘I’m a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have got lousy taste.’  Fair comment, Grace. Back to the prose-face …

Honoured By Strangers: The Life of  Captain F.N.A. Cromie (1882-1918) will be re-issued as an e-book as part of the Great War commemorations by
Constable & Robinson/Little, Brown Inc. June 2014 




Monday, 24 March 2014

Meditating on Old Age


When Were We Happy?

In 8 days’ time, against what I considered to be ‘all the odds’, smoking, drinking and over-eating, I will reach the staggering age of 71. I will have outlived my poor mother by 13 years. Ambling along through Mansfield town centre this morning behind a phalanx of shopping pensioners, I felt mildly miffed as they were trundling ahead of me three abreast, completely blocking the pavement, chattering away, tartan Dorothy bags in tow,  and virtually reducing all pedestrian traffic in their wake to the same slow shuffle. I wanted to ‘get on’ and cross over to Wilkinson’s to get my masonry nails. But then it hit me: speed didn’t matter anymore. Since schooldays, like most of my peers, I’ve had to keep an eye on the clock. Work and the challenge of earning a living demanded it. We were governed by capitalism’s hoary old chestnut ‘Time is Money’ or John Lennon’s “the future is what happens whilst you’re making plans for it.”  But once you reach a suitable crossroads in age, which I have decided is seven decades, then the life you have led takes on a different hue. Time stays. We go. ‘Time’, as the great screen writer Ben Hecht once said, ‘is a circus always packing up and moving away’.

Hecht’s comparison to a circus steers me to the subjects of memory and happiness. The end of a Circus, when you’re a kid, as the marquee is taken down, signifies the end of  happiness in the same way as one views the bleak, January bareness of a living room once the Yuletide tinsel and the tree have gone. So it is at the age of 70. Can old men be happy? Perhaps Santa Claus can be because he’s immortal. The rest of us, at least those of my own morose mind-set, search through the packed, creaking cabinets of our lives looking for emotional souvenirs which, when assembled together as a group, might remind us that all that servitude to the clock at least gave us some moments of contentment. Most of those gems only appear as such in retrospect. Childhood summers, the birth of our children, the day of our marriage, days of success in our employment, those sun-kissed holidays and barbecue weekends of domestic togetherness. They parade through our memory like sepia photographs now, never to be reproduced, protected by the copyright of time. Can old men be truly happy? Perhaps not.

How could my wife and I have ever imagined, for example, when our lovely daughter Sarah was born in 1966, and through all those bright formative years of her childhood, that she would only reach the age of 47? I have a close, dear friend, a brother almost, approaching 70 now, whose only child was taken unexpectedly in 2009. Week in, week out, we share one another’s undying grief.  My sister in law has cancer. Another good friend informed me yesterday that he too has the ‘Big C’, and he hasn’t reached 50. So time is jam-packed with tragedy and anger, like a slatted fence around our lives. Only by peering through the cracks can we see the bright shafts of what we recall as happiness. Time also robs us of our dreams, destroys our bodies, eats into our brains, rots the memory and eventually drops us in our tracks like a stunned beast in an abattoir. I know I’m being far from cheerful here, and when the remaining calendar ahead of you has shortened (if you’re lucky), to a decade, you begin to wonder if there will be any more shafts of happiness to look back upon when you reach the big eight-O. If there are, they will have to match the following dozen memories, which are just a fraction of the overall collection:


1.      The whole family, sitting around a bar table on the Southampton-Cherbourg ferry circa 2004, drinking pint bottles of Heineken, and singing along with the ship’s bemused cabaret band as they performed Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Lionel Richie’s All Night Long.

2.      Together with all our friends, the Over The Hill Club, at Black Sail Youth Hostel in the Lake District, where alcohol was frowned upon yet we sent out for jerricans of ale to supplement the bottles of illicit rum and vodka which had been smuggled in. We had a hootenanny that night, utilising the antique instruments which were hanging around the walls, and in the morning, our leader, Gerry, washed his gonads in the stream outside in full view of a camp site occupied by teenage Born Again Christians.

3.      Lying in bed in the dark in France in an old cottage listening to Simon and Garfunkel on my Walkman.

4.      Every Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with our children Martin and Sarah. (Correction: every day we ever spent with them)

5.      Our honeymoon in a stormy Scarborough in April 1966.

6.      Meeting Smokey Robinson in his dressing room at Nottingham, 2007.

7.      Seeing Martin receive his Doctorate at Hull University.

8.      Sarah and Ivan’s wedding.

9.      Getting my new 2 litre silver-grey Ford Granada with carphone - and electric windows (!) in Grimsby in 1987.

10.  Wendy and I enjoying our 25th anniversary in Paris.

11.  Me, Dave Iles and Mort Williams singing folk songs at the Empress pub in Hull.

12.  The Over the Hill Club’s 3 days in Whitby in 2005.

Can Old Men Be Happy? Maybe they can when they look back. The difficult part is the challenge in looking forward. The scrap book or the photo album, are not yet full. The trick is to leave no empty pages when you go.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Zombies - Odessey and Oracle Revisted 40th Anniversary Concert (FULL)

When you've been married for almost half a century, and if you both love music, then there's always going to be something from those early, exciting and utterly romantic days of your first meetings which will always tickle the tear ducts and smother you in warm nostalgia. For Wendy and I it's the Zombies' 1966 album, Odyssey & Oracle. When they re-formed after 40 years we were first in line for their concerts at Shepherd's Bus in London and at Bridgwater Hall in Manchester. Now they're no longer thrusting young pop Gods; just little old men with wrinkles and receding hair. Yet their art remains timeless, and Colin Blunstone's sweet voice still has the power to make me lean across my seat to my wife and kiss her. This, Mr. Simon Cowell, is what pop music is meant to be: eternal, romantic, poignant. But I suppose that would mean a 'no' from you and  the judges, eh?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

IMF Employs the Walrus of Love!

 BEEN RIPPED OFF? HELP IS AT HAND!

It must be very confusing for anyone working at the IMF (International Monetary Fund) because there are two women working there with very similar names. One is, of course, the big boss, Christine Lagarde, and the other is her 'Admin Chairman' Christine LARGADE! Never the less, I was delighted to receive this e-mail from Ms. Largade this morning, because having a cash card to milk the IMF with is just the ticket when you're short of a few bob. But there's an even bigger revelation of the IMF's powers of resuscitation - Ms. Largade is working alongside the revived cadaver of the Walrus of Love, Barry White, who sadly passed on a couple of years ago. Therefore it's with some gratitude that I responded to the IMF's e-mail with suitable footnotes as follows:

From:    Ms. Christine Largade (sherryw@sherryorg.net)
Microsoft SmartScreen classified this message as junk.
Sent:     17 February 2014 23:44:52
To:          Recipients (sherryw@sherryorg.net)

International Reconciliation and Logistics Vault
International Monetary Fund (IMF)

COMPENSATIONAL SETTLEMENT OF ESCROW ACCOUNTS.
It is a pleasure to write you that we have reconciled with our logistic department on the reimbursement of some fund spent by you during the cause of your inadequate dealings with some impostors who claim to be staff in banks and other regional payment centers[1]. Our reconciliation teams with the prospectus instrument of the United Nations[2] after freezing suspected impostors account. This support was fully effective with the help of World Bank after a summit meeting in London[3], on the financial analysis on financial stability issues fluctuating their economy with the international global standard.

After gathering of this sum[4], our logistic department gave us a list of customers to be paid who fell victims to these imposters due to unawareness[5]. And mode of payment was as well specified for proper conducts and financial regulations to kick against criminality during process of payment[6]. We have arranged your payment through our swift card centers[7], with the latest instruction from International Monetary Fund Reconciliation Office.

The card center will send you an ATM[8] Debit card which you will use to withdraw your money in any ATM Center, Banks and Union Pay Credit outlets in the world, You are hereby selected as an honor for this payment approval, which you are to acknowledge the receipt of this mail in returning the required below to the Logistic Department[9] by email listed below.

 Office of Reconciliation and Logistics Vaults,
International Monetary Fund (IMF),
Contact Manager: Mr. Barry White[10]
mr.barrywhite@outlook.com

1. Full Name:  ELIJAH RIPMEOFF
2. Phone and Fax Number: Star Date 009.4237
3. Your age and Current Occupation:  87 Bouncer in Mothercare shop
4. Contact Address where you want your ATM Card to be delivered to (P.O Box Not Acceptable): c/o Darth Vader, the Death Star, Ursa Major.

For your information, you have to stop any further communication with any other person (s) or office (s) to avoid any hitches in receiving your payment. Because of Impostors, we hereby issued you our code of conduct, which is (ATM-7750) so you have to indicate this code when contacting the Card Center by using it as your subject. Kindly be informed that recipients shall be liable to all cost arising for the delivery of the donation parcel. This is due to Legal law protecting all donation funds misappropriation.

 
Yours in Service,
Ms. Christine Largade
Admin Chairman
International Reconciliation and Logistics Vaults
International Monetary Fund (IMF)


[1] What, you mean people who write bogus e-mails like this? I’m horrified!
[2] Could this be a banjo, by any chance, or a Ukelele? The Memphis Horns?
[3] Meeting at the Burkino All Day Breakfast Café, Peckham.
[4] We had a whip-round. It paid for this e-mail.
[5] Ah, the old ‘unawareness ploy’ thank heavens you know about this. Saves time.
[6] What - you mean we can kick you whilst we’re being paid? Bring it on!
[7] Which you’ll find next door to the Pound Shop in Bethnal Green.
[8] ATM: Absurd Tragic Mugs
[9] Address: Skip No. 3, rear of Netto Store, Lagos.
[10] You can’t fool me. The Walrus of Love died. So did Isaac Hayes. I prefer to deal with Smokey Robinson, if that’s OK with you. I know he works for you, Christine.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Ry Cooder - At The Dark End Of The Street - Live 1977

Ry Cooder - At The Dark End Of The Street - Live 1977

When we look back over the decades of thrills and inspiration music has provided, it can be difficult to pick out the true high points which stand the test of time and still caress our emotions. This beautifully measured performance by Ry Cooder and his band has that ambiance of eternity about it. The vocals, the togetherness of the musicians, and Ry Cooder's impeccable slide guitar playing are all something Simon Cowell and co. could never comprehend. This is real music, doing what real music does: lifting our spirits.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

OLD AGE SUCKS


An Embittered Meditation:  Old Age

Time it was and what a time it was, it was
            A time of innocence, a time of confidences
 Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
            Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you

Paul Simon, Old Friends.
Father and daughter, 1966.
I thought I'd live forever, and Sarah
knew she wouldn't.
 
When you’re pushing at age 71, you realise just how much the world has changed since you came into it. You also reach a mental plateau which every septuagenarian throughout history must have reached; an illogical incomprehension with those younger folk around you. This is further exacerbated by the rapid growth of technology which, rather than strengthening the bonds between human beings, seems to dissolve them, to be replaced with a myopic fixation on no longer communicating vocally and face to face, but by the blurred, rapid movement of texting thumbs.
We all, and even you, twenty and thirty-somethings, long after this 70-year old has shuffled off, eventually face that internal query “why didn’t everything stay the same as it was?” Yet the rhythms of life and death fluctuate wildly in every era. We are in an age of discovery, where being human becomes less and less important as our biology becomes absorbed by the unstoppable, creeping moss of robotic science.
What my generation knew as ‘traditions’ have evaporated. These may be silly examples to a younger mind, but take November 5, Guy Fawkes night. The anticipation of Bonfire Night when I was at school held almost the same frisson as that of Christmas Day. We stealthily bought up fireworks with our pocket money, storing them ready for the glorious night. We spent a month collecting anything combustible for our bonfires. Tree branches, old timber, rubber tyres. And then came the night itself, just one night, and if it rained, tough. But it HAD to be November 5th. It was a 3-hour riot of flame, of thunder-flashes, Roman candles, jumping jacks and rockets. On the morning after we would sadly skirt around the smouldering embers, and pick up expended fireworks, morosely remembering the night before. Then we’d shut down our glumness and start looking forward to Yuletide. Yet what happens now? As soon as the somewhat alien importation of America’s insistence on Halloween is over, fireworks start exploding everywhere from the end of October, almost up to December. If the ‘traditional’ November 5th isn’t on a ‘convenient’ day, then it will be ‘staged’ on a Friday or a Saturday. Nothing must interfere with business.
But Guy Fawkes night is nothing. Capitalism dictates that every previously folk-based point on the calendar has nothing to do with heritage, but with profit. Hot Cross buns and Easter Eggs rapidly fill the shelves now in January, four months ahead of their festive time-slot. Mince pies make their appearance now as early as September. We’re flagging up Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day and even Remembrance Sunday so far ahead of their time that when they arrive we’ve all but forgotten what they are. So what were once elements of tradition are now the background white noise of commercial prodding devices; buy, buy, buy.
As for technology, you are almost exiled from humanity without it. The PC and e-mail are fine; over the past two decades we’ve absorbed their benefits. But they are not enough for the corporate world. Everything is a ‘must-have’; a basic mobile phone isn’t worth looking at - only the I-phone will do. But then you need an I-Pad or some kind of tablet, and why buy a clunky printed book made of paper when yu can read literature on your Kindle. (Until, of course, you accidentally drop it, or someone steals it). The I-phone has had the effect of cutting off the outside world. Walk down any major street and note how many people are shambling along, both hands clutching their phone, thumbs a-blur texting, oblivious to the flight of birds, the wind in trees, the joy of actually strolling.

All this griping is what you’d expect from a curmudgeonly old crust like me. When I was younger you’d find people past pension age sitting on park benches smoking pipes, chuntering away about ‘the state of the world’ and it was hard to imagine that you’d ever become one of them. But be warned - it happens. Being ‘old’ seems an alien concept when you’re 25. Simon and Garfunkel said it best on their Bookends album in the mid-1960s:

                        Old friends, old friends

            Sat on their park bench like bookends
            A newspaper blown through the grass
            Falls on the round toes
            Of the high shoes of the old friends

Old friends, winter companions, the old men
            Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun
            The sounds of the city sifting through trees
            Settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

Can you imagine us years from today?
            Sharing a park bench quietly
            How terribly strange to be seventy

Old friends, memory brushes the same years
Silently sharing the same fears

 As I write this Paul Simon has reached the age of 72. There seems to be a cosmic unfairness about human biology. Yet if we were immortal, the world would be so crammed full of greatness, massive giants of intellect and totally insane megalomaniacs that it would explode. We need to die, but before that, we need to marry, we need to love, we need to have children, we need to do as much as we can in our allotted span to make sense of it all. This week I attended the wedding of my Niece, Cassandra. It too had none of the ‘traditions’ of most marriages. It was something new, something different, but none the less understandable, because it was original and, above all, creative.
A Goth Wedding: Cassandra Bainton Marries Neil Codd, February 6, 2014, Cottingham, Hull.
Next week we shall attend the funeral of our departed friend, Dorothy, who made it to her late 70s before that same evil which took our beloved daughter Sarah 14 months ago hit her; cancer. Joy and death, all in the space of a week. So perhaps all the progress I rail about, all the demolition of what I hold to be tradition, can stretch beyond the I-pad and the I-phone and Kindle and come up with a cure for Cancer. Perhaps then, we shall all be ‘old friends’ for a few decades more.

I shall now return to what my decreasingly agile brain still allows me to do; creative writing. And there’s a thought. When they scatter the ashes, something of us remains after all; these words.