Sunday, 28 February 2016

Fancy dream

My dreams always seem to dance on the edge of fancy, correct-not-correct versions of non-dream life. There are things that happened in my dreams that I count as happening in my life, aspects of my life that have distinctly dream-like qualities.

One strong dream-memory I have is of taking a sea cruise, falling off one side of the ship, swimming through the wake to find the other side firmly concreted to the land. One dream-like episode of my life involved a French-speaking barmaid called Juliette, the old, old 12-Bar Club, and a club night set up by Martin Dowsing named No Wankers Allowed[1].

One of my recent dreams involved arguing over the use of 'form' in poetry with a Doctor of Law. This is something that happens in my day-to-day life though the denunciation of my dream struck me as noteworthy: "One could argue that 'form' is the technique that allows the writer freedom to express rather than stiffening it. This is the same for 'conventions' for using oils and watercolours in painting, marquetry, joinery, so on. Without 'form' there is no shape."

I can't be sure of this, dreams are not the most reliable sources, though I think the 'form' we so hotly debated was referring to the different styles of poem one can deploy. Poetry crops up regularly at the moment, for projects and just because I want to write more.

And yet in the last few weeks my ideas have been pushed aside through work and personal life, not finding a thread to follow or rejecting the ones that sprang up[2]. One day soon a floodgate will explode.

Ambergris will flood. Jeff VanderMeer has hinted at such. I am making good progress through the City Of Saints And Madmen[3], and with it the slow realisation that VanderMeer might just be one of my favourite writers.

I am not one to review a book by spending three quarters of the words revealing the plot and one quarter being my thoughts. I don't want to reveal the plot and it's myriad of devices, what is the point in me telling you 'X told V that Y was the murderer when Z was manipulating everyone.' There's no joy sharing that.

So we're left with my thoughts and recollections, opinions and memories. Like with his Southern Reach trilogy of books, City Of Saints And Madmen gives me a sense of a fictional world complete where one might visit and touch it. This is not to say VanderMeer's writing is detailed, more to acknowledge that his writing is incomplete like real life. You and I, dear reader, have no way of knowing our world in the same way fictional worlds are presented in a novel.

This is how I find myself in Ambergris, and part of why I am enjoying the book so much. I know that Jeff VanderMeer has hoodwinked me into thinking this way, but then this is his work, his world he is letting us visit.

What a visit to Ambergris it is. There is a sense of profound beauty and savagery permeating through each paragraph. The city lures you in with civilised criminality and naked prophets, where love and romance are undone by staying out too late on the night of the Festival of the Freshwater Squid.

Reviewers tend to score, percentages to help entice readers and sales. I throw caution to the wind, give City Of Saints And Madmen a read, you will thank me later.

Notes and references
1 - Martin is quite a talented musician and writer, and I urge you as a fan[1.1] to check him out.
1.1 - I played bass guitar in his band for about a year, a period of my life that brought some of my most surreal episodes.
2 - Stupid, crappy, nonsensical, subpar stuff I don't want to read so therefore no one should read.
3 - At the time of writing I am about ten pages into The Transformation Of Martin Lake.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Plotting failure

You and your smuggler friend are in an illegal gambling den. You think it's risky betting money that isn't technically yours, but the smuggler, well, he's confident, he's always confident. You're being chased by the gangsters who run the den, shooting at you and the smuggler.

You and your smuggler friend are in an illegal gambling den. You think it's risky betting money that isn't technically yours, but the smuggler, well, he's confident, he's always confident. Maybe over confident, and he skips a trick by one of the other players. The people running the den don't like tricks, and falsely accuse the smuggler. You and the smuggler need to make a quick exit. Next you're being chased by the gangsters who run the den, shooting at you and the smuggler.

Which one scans? The first paragraph or the second, difficult, I know. So difficult.

Last week I read two comic books, Star Wars #16 and Guardians of the Galaxy #5, both of which, to me, missed a trick. Slight skips in plots can throw me, to the point where sometimes I can't finish a film, book or comic book. I find myself with so many questions.

To clarify, I know that some text need skips. Authors will withhold information to develop a plot, and nonlinear narration can be fantastic (and closer to memory recollection).

But the 'accidental' skip, a missing page, for example, causes problems. Why does the plot skip, is there something else missing? Is it worth trying to make the logical leap needed to bridge the gap?

Monday, 22 February 2016

Running and kitchens

Very soon the kitchen at home will be torn out like Snowden's guts[1]. Layers stripped back like a glass onion[2], tiles smashed, work tops toppled, cupboards cuckolded from the walls. Nothing will remain.

This will be a bookmark for the kitchen.

As a book collector I collect bookmarks too. My most recent find comes from a paint sample called Melancholy Monkey, it reminds me of the Chinese novel[3]. Before that I gained a bookmark from an online store (from someone else's purchase), and before that, a personal favourite, a Lindi Ortega ticket from the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds.

Every one and every thing collects bookmarks; time caught and stamped, a staging post marking an event, a line, progress through a book, an achievement against a goal.

The upheaval of the kitchen preparations has thrown up so many bookmarks at a time when I've been thinking about putting down new markers in my professional and personal life[4].

Not all markers will stick, though they might led on to better, other things. Life manages to through up many such events, a chance reference to a late friend leading on to a life-changing decision[5], a question in a failed interview prompting thoughts about motivation.

Motivation and motivating can seem like an embarrassment, or worse, a grubby activity that we are told to engage with but don't really think works. Why should it, we don't need motivating, we tell ourselves, we already know what we need.

And we're right, we already know. With the revelation of the murderer at the start of a novel, that secret knowledge is not kept from us. Except motivation doesn't always work like that. Sure, you've got the knowledge, dear detective reader, but not the experience.

Experience counts. It allows growth and development, and gives us knowledge that we can share. When I started thinking about bookmarks and motivation there was one activity that sprang to mind, running (or jogging, if you feel there's a difference). I have a lot of experience running, seven years of moving feet in time to the beat of my body.

Seven years of frustrations, pains and joys. Eighty four months of lows, sprains and leg actions. There are aspects of running that I share with every runner, there are aspects which are mine alone. Anecdotally from friends who run, between us we agreed it took about four weeks for running to switch from being an activity we did to an activity we enjoyed. We all bookmarked the feeling of managing our first long run (even when it is not a third of our current long runs), injury frustrations, and coping mechanisms.

I think I could motivate anyone to run. There's four approaches to taking up running, and one of them will work with you.

First up, you're already interested. You have thought about running, and this is the final push you need. What you need now is a decent pair of running shoes to start off with, which don't need to be expensive, and a somewhere to go. When I started running I did four hundred metre laps of a local park, which allowed me to easily calculate distances. Around that park I got up to three kilometres before getting out into the open road.

Second up, you're not sure. You've heard friends talk about how much they like running but you've also heard about their injuries. That is understandable, you don't want to do something to keep fit and do your knee in. The thing is, whatever you consider doing to keep fit, there always will be a possibility of injury. Be careful, don't over do it, listen to your body and keep a balance. My first injury bookmark was difficult (left ankle, three months off running), I lost concentration when crossing a road and tripped. Lesson learnt, watch where you put your feet, James.

Third, you don't want to look silly running and know that everyone will be watching you. This is most probably based on your experiences at school during physical education. By running now you feel like you will be inviting all those children from your memory, plus everyone you see in the street, to judge you. You feel like you won't be able to do it right, because you feel running can only be right or wrong.

This is something I felt for many years, it was difficult to see through it. To begin with, I knew I had to do something to keep fit, and running was the best activity for me at the time. Then, as I started running more regularly my thoughts switched from worrying about what others saw to how I was actually doing. Ultimately, and this goes for all runners, don't think about anyone else, you are the runner, you are doing something for yourself, not that person on the street or that guy in the car[6]. At the end of the run, be it one mile, five kilometres or a half marathon, you will be doing it for you. Well done when you do it.

Fourth. Well, let's face it, you're not convinced. In fact, you know there's nothing in running you would enjoy and you don't have the time. You're right, so right, about that. More than the anything else I've written here this I am sure of. Don't believe me? You remember that four weeks thing, here's your means of testing it. Run three times a week for five weeks then stop, completely stop. 

At the end of this one of us will be right.

Notes and references
1 - No reference for this one, kind of a massive spoiler for one of my favourite books.
2 - The Beatles, White Album, 1967.
3 - Nope, it's a mystery, make your own journey to the west.
4 - Planetine.
5 - Another late friend, another bookmark found. I started listening to the Delgados again, the tunes shaped by the craftsmanship of the band and what I would highlight in conversations with the departed. That song, "they all say the planets don't exist," why, that's clearly a full hour's worth of drinking beer and talking in there, me thinks.
6 - During a recent run I was shouted at by two men in a Peugot car. It was heading through Headingley on my first 10km in months, and they were stuck in traffic. While it's not great being shouted, and I try to be aware of what's happening around me, I usually find myself wondering why they'd do it. I mean, stuck in traffic?