Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pearls of Wisdom from Fay Weldon

It was interesting to hear novelist, Fay Weldon, on the Radio Four programme With great pleasure this morning. As a writer, she’s very individual, and it was quite a surprise to hear some of her traditional choices. I was very cheered by her remark that her father paid her to learn poetry when she was a child, because we have so discarded ideas of learning poetry – in fact, anything by rote - and yet having something firmly filed in your brain, whether it be poetry, or times tables can be so useful. Decades ago, when I did GCE in English Literature, I learned by heart as much of the WW1 poetry as I could. When the exam came, it was like having the book in front of me; I was able to quote from whichever was appropriate and words simply streamed out. I got the top mark in my class, and that was despite my answers on Shakespeare and Dickens probably not being as good as the poetry question.

Fay Weldon also commented on the wealth of adjectives in one of her choice of poems. I think it was The Ancient Mariner – and then said that, at the creative writing class where she teaches, they normally discourage the use of adjectives. I got the impression she was saying that possibly it wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Well, I’ll go along with that. Creative writing groups do come out with a lot of rulings that change with fashion. Cut out the adverbs, adjectives. Why should we, I’d like to know. Why did we invent them, if we weren’t going to use them? And another rule was, ‘Write what you know,’ and Fay Weldon wasn’t an enthusiast of that one, either. Not when applied to Jane Austen, at any rate. Jane Austen, it seems, tried to do just that, when actually, she had a lot more adventurous ideas under her bonnet. And what’s more, said Fay Weldon, she read her work out to her family. Another bad idea. They’re bound to inhibit your writing.

Back to my short story, in a moment, which, if I manage to complete it, might be directed at Writers’ News. Or at least, I might be able to read it out, tonight, at the first 2010 meeting of Guildford Writers’ Circle.

On the non-writing front it looks as if I’m going to have to schedule in an operation in the next few months. The consultant would prefer to deal with me in the summer, so that during my six weeks’ recovery period, I can take strolls in the sunshine. The prospect does not fill me with joy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

An Ed Reardon moment

It’s almost enough to make me kick the cat – if I had a cat, that is, which I don’t, unlike Ed Reardon, the wonderful fictional hack writer, whom I heard yesterday on Radio 4. (http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/radio/ed_reardons_week)

Having waited patiently for my PLR statement – which used to earn me quite a few pounds in the days when my self help book was in print – I finally decided to register on line. Having already been ‘on the books’ so to speak, for many years, since the days of postal deliveries, in fact, before the internet was invented, I hadn’t bothered to update myself to new technology.

Tainted Tree has been borrowed a great deal from Surrey Libraries, recently, and I had been eagerly waiting my payment. But when I finally got through the password and favourite pet stage (perhaps I should have pinched Ed’s cat’s name, Elgar) and waited a day for my registration to go through, I found to my dismay that I had somehow failed to register Tainted Tree. A year and a half’s worth of loans have been wasted, as far as I’m concerned.

Note to all novelists. Please remember (as I obviously did not) that, unlike the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society Ltd, where it is the author who is registered for photocopying, library loans in other countries, etc., it is not the author who is registered for Public Lending Right, but the book itself. Please friends in Surrey, carry on borrowing Tainted Tree. I’m sure you’ll find it’s worth a read – have a look a Readers’ Comments on my website, if you don’t believe me. That’s at: http://freespace.virgin.net/jackie.luben/ and scroll down to ‘Tainted Tree.’

As if this was not enough angst for an Ed Reardon-like curmudgeon, the day continued to frustrate. As if it were not enough to have to fight a continuous daily battle to get the recycling and food waste collected by a team that is very reluctant to visit us, a man from gas services appeared and cheerfully informed me that he was going to disconnect us. Water in with the gas, or something. ‘How long?’ I queried. ‘A couple of hours,’ he said – well, this afternoon.’ So some four or five hours later, my neighbours and myself were on the blower again, this time chasing the gas reinstatement team.

When the OM arrived home, we were still waiting. By this time, I’d installed a fan heater in the hall, and set the oven to ‘self-clean’, and it was blasting out smelly fumes and lots of heat. The OM, who bought a chain saw last year, which alas failed to last out the season, lit the fire and started sawing at some timber outside with an angle grinder. The gas team, when they arrived at 7.00 p.m. thought this was hilarious. However, to their credit, they did get us going again, having arrived in an enormous tanker, which makes a nonsense of the excuses given to us by the recycling team, about us not being very accessible.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Of Shoes and Ships and Shopping Trips

The big thrill of the week was leaving the house to go to Sainsbury’s. Other than two short walks in my wellies, this is the only time I’ve been out of the house since my last shopping trip. This time, the OH didn’t have to push me out. I managed with a bit of revving to surmount the deep grooves in the snow in our drive, which was a bit like a train driving over points; then on to the already made tracks, courtesy of the milkman or the refuse collectors – not sure which. Once I’d travelled the 250 yards along two tracks carved into the snow, to the main road, it was all right.

The thaw of the last couple of days brought a rash of telephone calls for the OM. Having been exceedingly quiet for the last month, three calls came in on Friday and he will be racing out on Monday to deal with them all. If that sounds a bit stressful, I can assure you that the OM was like a gleeful child. There's nothing he likes more than being busy, and he's been extremely bored recently. Never have so many repeats of Poirrot been watched in such a short time.

I’ve finished the current book – Notes from an exhibition in which Patrick Gale uses the device of an exhibition of artist, Rachel Kelly’s various pieces to trigger off a chapter about an event or character in the book, related to her.

I felt he wrote in a very humane way about his characters, and one couldn’t help empathising with each of them, when one got under their skin. Since being able to feel for the character is an important element of a book to me, that was something that I liked about the book. I did begin to feel after a while, however, that there were just too many characters (each chapter told in his or her viewpoint) and I was losing track of what the first ones had contributed to the story. There were several chapters in which Rachel, both as an adult, and when young, featured. Also, Antony, her husband, as a young man, their four children and Rachel’s sister.

Since, as I said before, each of these extracts was like a snapshot of a particular time in a character’s life, and because these occasions were not chronological, I felt the story lost impetus, after a while. In fact you couldn’t really say the book had a strong plot. At the end, I felt somewhat unsatisfied. Possibly it is the sort of book that needs to be read a second time. I might find it more satisfactory, then, rather like Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which I enjoyed much more second time around, and which was constructed in a similar way.

We cancelled both the Reading Circle and Writers’ Circle meetings, because of the icy roads; so many side roads were still covered in snow – new snow on Wednesday – and iced over due to the very cold weather, so we will discuss our book in a month’s time at the reading circle.

I also finished listening to the serial – Six Suspects – which was totally far-fetched but I was nevertheless drawn back to find out who did it. Also the last part of Antonia Fraser’s memoir about her life with Harold Pinter – Must You Go? Who would have imagined that Harold Pinter would be such a romantic – filling the house with flowers when she first went to live with him. A non sequitur - I remember my father saying he went to the Pinters’ wedding – but that was Mr & Mrs Pinter senior, Harold’s parents.

The news of course has been filled with the earthquake in Haiti. Whatever wimpish statements we may make about our weather here, what a privilege it is to live in a country where there are no earthquakes or volcanoes or tsunamis to cause such devastation. We are indeed very fortunate here for many reasons.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mrs Robinson - where will it lead?

Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. All the ingredients for a novel are contained in the scandal of the First Minister for Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, or to be more accurate, his wife, Iris. Infidelity, an affair with a much younger man, in the style of The Graduate even to the name of the female protagonist, or the damaged older woman of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. Add into the mix, Mrs Robinson’s alleged attempt to embezzle funds for her young lover, and what more do you need? Did Mrs Robinson seduce the young man, or did he take her for a ride, seeing the strength of her emotions? After all, she subsequently tried to commit suicide. Doesn’t it show, though, that no matter how high up you go, how much power you have, and how much is at stake, basic human emotions will over-ride all that?

This is a personal tragedy, but has the potential to be a much greater tragedy. With the possibility of an end to Peter Robinson’s premiership, how will this affect the peace process in Northern Ireland? What will happen to the power sharing arrangement with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness? Surely, if the peace process is derailed by this, people will look back at these events for many years to come, with regret at how the antics of a couple of people can change things for a nation.

I am currently reading Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale, and cannot help feeling that this novel is really a collection of events happening to different people – a snapshot of each of the main characters at a specific time in their lives. Although I would hesitate to compare them in terms of literary worth with my own work, in this respect, this and the current serial on Radio Four, Six Suspects written by Vikas Swarup, author of Q and A, which became the tremendously successful film, Slumdog Millionaire are not all that different from my novella A Bottle of Plonk (Have Wine will Travel). Although I’m somewhat laboriously ploughing on with the current novel, it seems to me that a novel of this kind does not require the detailed plotting that I did with Tainted Tree. You create your various incidents, each being an episode or a chapter, and then you link them with a central character. Perhaps this is the way that the post-modern novel is going. Perhaps this will provide me with ideas for a future novel.

Throughout the cold spell, I have been putting out water and bird food, very close to my garden door, and apart from some avaricious pigeons, which I’ve shushed away, I’ve been visited by a blackbird and a robin. The robin has called earlier; it’s now so tame that if I throw out food and say to it, ‘Stay there and I’ll get you a bit of cheese,’ it waits. Then when I throw out the cheese, it dives for it and removes it to the safety of the hedge. I've included today some photos of the robin, both yesterday and a couple of weeks ago, and more icy views from yesterday, when at one point the sun was shining, despite the cold.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Surrey in Snow

My little patch of Surrey is covered in snow. Some of the views are magical. One cannot help wanting to take yet another photo, to catch it at its most pristine, branches and leaves edged in brilliant white, sugar frosting masking all the normal defects.

So I’ve included some photographs here, but at the same time, I have to say I do not like snow. It’s inhibiting, it spoils arrangements, it costs the country a huge amount – and what’s more, it’s cold.

Today the OM and I managed to get out to Sainsbury’s, to stock up for the week ahead. We went in the middle of the day, when the sun was shining. First we took a broom to the car, to sweep off inches of snow compacted into ice, because we didn’t do it yesterday. We had to switch on the ignition and the windscreen heater, to help the ice melt a bit. Then I got in the car, and the OM pushed; it was very hard work (for him and for the car). I accelerated, but it was very reluctant to move out of the ruts it had settled in. The OM pushed for around 50 yards, and then we arrived at our neighbour’s who had already taken a car out that day. That made it easier. I drove very slowly, and had no problems until the return journey, when we pulled into the lane from the main road. Then with a bit too much acceleration, I skidded and nearly ended in a ditch. But didn’t. With frosts of -18C threatened tonight, I won’t want to go anywhere until the thaw.

Fortunately, we were able to manage a family visit on Saturday – a lovely lunch with M’s sister and the other members of the tribe. And a different family gathering on Sunday. But this coming weekend’s social visit has been cancelled. We also fitted in a Goldenford meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Just as well, because about an hour after I’d arrived home, the snow arrived. Irene tells me she’s had a statement of her PLR earnings. I’m still waiting, because the postman hasn’t managed to get to us. Neither in fact has the milkman. At least, through email and the internet, one can stay in touch.

Friday, January 01, 2010

On with the new

Ten days since I last wrote – unbelievable how quickly the time goes. At least we are on the other side of the shortest day, although the dark morning a couple of days ago seemed to belie that fact.

That sort of weather, dark and wet left me feeling depressed, but with social functions – neighbours’ invite to drinks and snacks on Christmas Eve, trip to OM’s brother on Christmas Eve, visit from Son&Heir and family, late December, and planned visits to the OM’s sister tomorrow, I feel somewhat cheered. Also saw Irene yesterday and had a good chat. One side effect of all these visits has been a non-stop eating orgy, which has included biscuits, cakes, liquor chocolates, bought lemon meringue roll (delicious though), home made brownies (mine). And that’s not counting the turkey and all the main meals and the roast potatoes. Shall I go on?

As we are off visiting tomorrow, there’s no point in planning to turn over a new leaf quite yet. But I’ve put on at least five pounds in the last couple of weeks.

We watched two good films on Tuesday, after the family had gone – a period of unwinding is necessary – one was Miss Potter and the other The Truman Show. The latter of course providing an unusual take on reality TV, with its story of a man whose every moment was watched in a TV programme, where everyone else was an actor, and every activity was fake – except his own reactions to people and events. Perhaps, in the next decade, we can have a bit less of reality TV, its voyeurism, and its manipulation of vulnerable people. I prefer fiction, myself.

Miss Potter, aside from some moments of cuteness, was lovely. I was really moved by the death of Beatrix Potter’s fiancé, only weeks after their secret engagement. But I also found tears coming to my eyes, when Beatrix innocently asked whether she could afford to buy a house with her royalties and was told she had enough money to buy anything she wanted – and for the rest of her life. What a triumph that her little books, so put down by her parents, could have brought her wealth and an independent life. I don’t need the latter, but I could certainly empathise with the feelings on the success of her writing. I would be very happy to have such success (any success) in 2010. And so far, I’ve written a really long letter to the Borough Council, complaining about the non-collection of our food waste before Christmas. That at least, I feel sure, will have an effect.

Last night, we didn’t go out. I was reading my latest reading circle book by Patrick Gale, and the OM dozed off. I was tempted to go off to bed and forget about the witching hour, but he awoke at about 11.45 and we turned up the TV. After we had watched the magnificent spectacle at the London Eye on the Thames, we heard the sound of small explosions outside. We opened the curtains. The night was almost a s bright as day, the full moon casting a silvery sheen across the garden and reflecting light on the white clouds above. and in the moonlight, we could see bright sparkles of colour from a neighbour’s fireworks. And so we brought in the second decade of the millennium.

Happy New Year to all my friends.