Literary inspiration, where does it come from and are we all plagiarists?

A number of people have asked me some interesting questions over the last few years, about my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J; We never had it so goodQuestions like: “But is Phillip you?” And: “So what influenced you to write?” 

It’s often got me thinking, not so much about what influenced me to write it, but more about the influences whilst in the process of writing. And in this post, I’d like to briefly talk about such literary influences, conscious or otherwise. Because, after all, we are all plagiarists by nature. And if we weren’t, we’d never know how to get from a to b… A to B. Sounds like ‘out of bed’.

Since I haven’t read my debut for so long – and never had any intention of rereading it – I found, when flicking through its pages a few days ago, that I began to slow down somewhat, and before long I was reading it in spite of myself. What jumped off the page at given junctures were those literary influences, books I might have been reading at the time, or those to have influenced me to the point of dictating the direction of my life – incidentally, you’ll find a post dealing with my five all-time favourites here << .

A literary genre to truly impress me, when done correctly, is satire, narration from the viewpoint of an ‘alien’ looking in; one able to show human folly in all its morning glory. But it goes further than that: I mean someone you wouldn’t consider to be an alien at all, at least physically, maybe even your average Joe. A human alien, then, on Earth. And that’s where Camus’ L’Étranger comes in.

I believe there is an element of Meurseault, Camus’ character, in Phillip, my narrator, in that he endeavours – if endeavours is the right word; he kind of struts along – to go about his life via his own route only to fall at just about every hurdle. I feel sorry for Phillip, I can see that his heart’s in the right place, and why he sees life in a certain way, just as with Meurseault. Neither of them will ‘play the game’. But although there’s no compromise, it isn’t through sheer crankiness or belligerence, quite the contrary: it’s because they simply don’t understand the game. Furthermore, they are also very much affected by the elements. The kind of effects the sun has on Merseault is equivalent to the factory fumes Phillip must endure. And like Merseault, if more comically in Phillip’s case, you could imagine my narrator, too, killing his old boss completely in spite of himself, due to said elements… well, that and the fact said boss won’t allow Phillip to get his head down for an hour in a dark corner. Poor Phillip, he should go to bed at nights…

Another literary hero to appear in my five all-time favourites is Paul Baumer, from Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front. Another good title for this classic would have been The Outsider. Why? Because, for me, being an outsider is about making a conscious choice; it is someone, unlike Merseault especially, who refuses to ‘fit in’. Maybe Phillip is somewhere between the two.

Where Paul Baumer and Phillip Rowlings are so similar is that they feel they are each fighting war alone; Phillip also witnesses, if only a tad less literally, young people dropping dead around him, and feels helpless. And when Phillip, by then an eighteen year old, flees from a hospital ward to the point of feeling that he could almost fly, well, I recall Baumer doing very much the same thing having witnessed the passing away of a comrade…

As for books I was reading at the time, as I remember – I did write the book between 2002 and 05 – there was Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his debut novel too.

Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s all but 1st-person narrator, is a hardened working class rebel, of the early 1960s variety; one of the ‘kitchen sink’ mob. And he even gets a mention; for two reasons, as I see it: a, because his dad resembles him; and b, more importantly, because he yearns to resemble him also, physically, sartorially, and philosophically. Save Phillip doesn’t seem quite up to it…

But yes, yet another, kind of, outsider looking in.

Another of my five books is a play: Shakespeare’s Henry IV part two. 

‘However could you come up with that one!’ you might well say.

Well, forgive my audacity, but I see something very Falstafian in the relation between Phillip and his best friend Jed. Moreover, without giving too much away, Phillip is eventually obliged to make a life-choice, with regard to Jed: that is, will Phillip follow Jed down an ever-darkening avenue; or will he endeavour to stick with the slightly lighter of the two?

But, normally, Phillip would follow Jed into the Gates of Hell, and at times often feels as if he has – i.e., amid Jed’s very own Shakespearean escapades, believe it or not. I’m sure the Bard’s literary creation was a major influence in my writing some of these scenes, even if, for the majority of times, the joke is on Phillip

As a final influence – though there’ll no doubt be many more – I’m going to suggest Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s – emphasis on the book and not the film; and not that I’ve ever found anything remotely wrong with Audrey Hepburn…

Film-wise, one of my major influences in life has been the Nouvelle Vague, a genre of French cinema from the late 50s to the early 70s, and I character I fell hopelessly in love with many moons ago, the ultimate mod icon, was Jean Seberg, in Jean-Luc Goddard’s À bout de soufflé. It was a strange experience, a weird case of déjà vu, at least to see Seberg’s Patricia Franchini, out there on the streets of Paris. That short-cropped blond hair. Seemingly snatched from Truman’s novel; my literary, imaginary lover gone all cinematic…

But I’ll say no more of such an influence as hers, since she plays too great a role in Wood, Talc and Mr. J; We never had it so good...

Funny, writing this: I’m now reminded of Dave Eggers’ copyright page, at the beginning of his A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he states:

‘This is a Work of genius, only that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so he had to fill in gaps as best he could.’

Fiction indeed…

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Five fims/movies that changed my life...

In my previous post I told you how five books changed my life, helped make me who I am today. I’d now like to tell you of five such films to have also helped the process along.

Once more, they won’t be in order of preference – it’s hard enough having to pick only five – but what I will say is that they’re films to have lasted the course; I never tire of seeing them. And what I’m able to conclude from my list is very interesting indeed; I might even say alarming…

Therefore, as with the afore-mentioned five books, prepare for a four–dimensional journey, and do dress accordingly.

* * * * *

Flat caps on, for I’d like to begin in God’s Own Country, or County, the one of my birth: Yorkshire; amid World War Two. On second thoughts, make it steel helmets…

Adapted from Ronald Harwood’s successful 1980 play, The Dresser, directed by Peter Yates and released in ’83, hits home on a number of levels, some being personal. But I’ll start by stating that, for all its wonderfully comic moments, and lines, particularly between Finney and Courtney, actor and dresser, the pervasive sense of pathos running throughout the film is almost tangible. We can’t help but laugh, and yet feel guilty for doing so…

I believe Finney was only in his forties when taking on this role, one of an old man verging on madness, and how convincing he is. But then he’d already more proved himself in another film adaptation, the musical Scrooge, a version which, for me, will never be surpassed.

Finney’s character, known only as ‘Sir’, has problems, excluding the fact he’s on his last legs. All the able-bodied actors are overseas fighting for Britain’s life against Nazi Germany, while the luftwaffe is bombing all the better theatres. He, therefore, in Churchillian endeavour without the splendour, fights the fight to hold the Shakespearean company together, those having, in his own words, been reduced to “old men, cripples and nancy-boys”.

At one point, Sir, who’ll be taking the stage in about 30 minutes’ time, can’t remember which play the company is performing that night. As it turns out, he’ll be playing King Lear.

As it follows, in theatre-actor’s nightmare fashion – my bi-annual dream is that I’m offered a large part in a play to be performed that very evening, and I’ve lost the ability to say ‘Get lost!’

Essentially, though this film is a love-story with a difference; and the symbiotic relationship between the washed-up actor and his dresser – one of society’s outcasts of the day – is doomed from the outset.

And as with any great book, film or play, a line tends to sum it all up, such a line encapsulating the story’s very essence. When Sir lies down for what is the last time, on the dressing room sofa, provoking the dresser’s bout of hysteria, the latter suddenly, poignantly, utters: “Come back”.


* * * * *

And to the mountainous Clermont-Ferrand, in France, during the mid-00s, for something very similar, thematically: Quand J’étais Chanteur – translated as The Singer.

This time, the pained relationship is between a young, new-in-town, blond-cropped beauty – Cécile de France – and an ageing, portly, regional celebrity and crooner; a survivor – Gérard Depardieu.

Their initial meeting – in L’Aquarius, where Alain Moreau, Depardieu’s character, is a regular performer – is everything you’d expect it to be: awkward. Moreau relies on old lines; and Marion (de France) rebuffs them with equal worldly-wisdom. It’s cringe-worthy, difficult to view… and yet hilariously irresistible.

One character is everything the other isn’t; they’re chalk and cheese, a living incongruity, and yet, they were somehow made to be together. Indeed, they end up ‘together’ on the first night, due to a little too much champagne on Marion’s part, only for her to flee before breakfast is served and Moreau to end up calling in on her place of work. Another magical meeting takes place between the two in a café across the street. Moreau’s philosophy is a simple one: “A singer becomes corny only if he survives; if he doesn’t survive, he doesn’t become corny…”

Pacino and De Niro meeting up in The Heat? No, give me De France and Depardieu any day of the week…

Written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, he chose the perfect couple for this relationship; and, furthermore, left us guessing as to what would become of our heroes following their final meet-up in the film, as the credits begin to roll.

Will they or won’t they? It seems ok… But then all happy endings are ironic, somebody once said. Xavier Giannoli must believe that, too.

Still, it doesn’t prevent panache.

* * * * *

A short train ride will suffice for our next cinematic classic, to a black and white Paris of 1959. A major influence on Depardieu, Francois Truffaut was one of the leading lights in the Nouvelle Vague movement: a group of cineastes endeavouring to create a new kind of realism.

Les Quatre cent coupsThe 400 Blows – was Truffaut’s first and finest film, in my humble opinion.

Autobiographical, Truffaut chose as himself a remarkable young actor by the name of Jean-Pierre Léaud. << And as a little treat, if you click on his name, you’ll see the interview for the actual role..

What Truffaut succeeds in drawing from Léaud is purity; unadulterated, unselfish and untainted; raw innocence – it is magic. And when Leaud’s character, young Antoine Doinel, is interviewed by a social worker – whom we never see but hear her voice, the emphasis being on Doinel – we partly become the jury, having borne witness to the kind of broken home from which he hails. How does the saying go again? He manages to suspend our disbelief?

When viewing the scene for the first time – a good twenty-five years ago; when Channel 4 was a worthy channel and introduced me to La Nouvelle Vague – I was convinced there was nothing fake about it.

And in a way there wasn’t.

Of course, the final scene must be one of the most iconic in French Cinema, where Doinel has escaped the Boys’ Home and made it to the sea – all he ever wanted; he’s never seen it before – and so turns to the camera, which, in turn, leaves us with a still.

Speechless, in every sense of the word… 

* * * * *

It would be so easy for me now to keep you here, time and place, with A bout de souffle Breathless – which was Jean-Luc Goddard’s first and finest film, too; the ultimate style-film, making way for the ultimate Mod icon, another cropped-headed blond by the name of Jean Seberg – do you see a pattern? As some of you may remember from my previous post covering my five all-time books, I fell in love with Truman Capote’s literary Holly Golightly?

We’re now off again to Flanders Fields, and to a film that, if it doesn’t surpass Erich Remarque’s book from which it was adapted, it certainly stands equal to it: Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front…

I saw the film as a young boy; the book came later. And if I’m honest, as powerful and as heart-wrenching as the book is, particularly by the end where the narration suddenly moves from first to third person, as Paul Baumer’s life is snuffed out by a sniper’s bullet on the eve of the Armistice, a little part of me was disappointed by Paul’s not having left himself open to the bullet for reaching out to a butterfly… a butterfly in No-man’s land…

Made in 1930, it’s a time of transition in film, from the silent movies to the ‘talkies’, which serves somehow to enhance its greatness, and it is non-replicable…

My debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good…, about a lad growing up in the 1970sis, believe it or not, greatly inspired by both the book and the film.

* * * * *

Our final destination is to a fictional place in England, of the 1980s, and to an animated one at that.

When The Wind Blows was a 1986 film adaption of Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel of the same name, using Briggs’ illustrations and directed by Jimmy Murakami, David Bowie and Roger Waters providing the soundtrack.

And it is pure genius.

From the perspective of old country-dwellers, James and Hilda Bloggs – to the voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft – When The Wind Blows tells the story of a nuclear attack on Britain. They’re hardly ready, James and Hilda, for this new kind of war. But then that’s the point: who was? Who is?

Not to worry, the ever-pragmatic James will take a bus ride down to the village library to pick up the leaflets before stocking up on provisions and such, much to the scorn and ridicule of his son at the other end of a phone call – each seems to think the other’s lost his mind… and somehow, once again, we have to laugh when there’s nothing else we can do.

The film is imbued with such exquisite moments, like when James gets carried away, standing before the fireplace, and recalls how things were different for Monty’s war… and when Monty appears momentarily beside him, like old buddies from bygone days. Or when Hilda takes a walk in the garden, picks a dandelion and blows it into the breeze to a Roger Waters acoustic backing of Folded Flags, and all the good times flash before her eyes… Or like when Hilda’s hair begins to fall out following the nuclear blast, and the look on James’ face when he realises he can do nothing about it.

And ending with their final prayer…

As I said in my intro, the word is timeless.

* * * * *

And I only hope you haven’t been too traumatised by my choice of five films, along with many others, to have marked me profoundly, to have guided me along; to have opened my eyes to the power of the seventh art…

For my art, I tend to go for a sense of realism, where less is more, where there is hope, but yes, where happy endings are ironic, where everything is temporary, where only time resolves issues; and so we must cherish, embrace the now, for good or bad…

You might well think that, for the above five films, all our heroes are doomed, but that’s only one viewpoint. I prefer to think that what makes all our heroes stand out is due to the fact they truly live within the confines of each film.

There’s the secret. Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.

Do you have five such films/movies?

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Five books that changed my life...

They can do all kinds of things to you, books.

They can get you into trouble when you’re young: ‘Put that book down, Christopher, you were in bed two hours ago – They’ll be ringing social services next, you look like a zombie!’

Indeed, they can be bad for your health: ‘How many times have I told you not to read in the dark, you’ll be as blind as a bat by the time you’re 30 – You’ll have glasses like jam jars!’

Be bad for your diet… or maybe good for it: ‘’No wonder I’m hungry, I forgot to eat!’

Be bad for musicians: ‘Look at my guitar nails, but I thought she’d get killed!’

They can cause insomnia: ‘’Couldn’t sleep until I knew he’d marry her!’

Or have the reverse effect: ‘I’ll never finish this book at this rate!’

They can make you late: ‘Shit, I’ve missed my stop!’

And put you off films: ‘’Nothing like the book (snooty voice)!’

They can make you say even sillier things: ‘’So many books in the world and I have only one pair of eyes!’

They can force environmentalists into a corner: ‘’Nothing like the feel of a good book, you can keep your kindle… Oh, wait a minute…’

They can force you into a corner: ‘’Can’t move in this room for…!’

They can arouse you: ‘Has it suddenly got hot in here?’

But they can even bring about delirium; or trip you up; or have you falling in love with a fictional character: ‘Why isn’t Holly Golightly my next door neighbour!’

I could go on. And it’s enough to make you wonder why we do it.

Why, then, do we do it?

Because books can also make us cry, from deep within, in a way nothing else can…

As well as make us laugh, wholeheartedly, from that same place…

And further to that, they may guide us, lead us down the right path, or steer us from the wrong one; they allow us to empathise, sympathise…

They may not always tell us anything new – perhaps never tell us anything new. Yet they always tell us in a new way…

Stories guide us, our world is in narrative form; and they may be major influences in our lives, particularly in our formative years. To a degree, they mould us into who we are today, construct our perspectives, leading us out onto the world…

And all I’d like to do in this blog post is to state five such books that have played an important role in my life thus far, and why. Who knows, I may then persuade you to tell me yours, allowing me to enter your literary world, for yet another perspective.

In the meantime, I urge you to dress accordingly, according to each of my – our – literary destinations…

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathon Swift.

It was an old English teacher who, indirectly, prompted me to read this one. Though when I say indirectly, do I mean belatedly? Whatever the case, I laughed in her face – I was thirteen years old, what would I want with a children’s story, teachers are so stupid!?

When eventually picking up and delving into Gulliver’s Travels many years after my teacher’s rebuked guidance, I recall referring to the big Collins Dictionary in our house, for a peak at its definition of ‘satire’.

“Wow!’ I blew. ‘And I thought I knew what the word meant. Jonathon Swift must be, sort of, the Master…”

I’ve rarely read satire to equal that kind of power since. Certainly nothing has ever surpassed it.

I also haven’t read the book for over twenty thirty years, and have only ever read it that first time. Isn’t that strange! That such an influential book and inspiration should then hold me at a distance? And the truth of the matter is that my recollections of the story have become rather vague.

All I now recall are names, the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians.

However subconsciously, perhaps I’ve always known you can’t go home again...

What I recall, though, is getting pulled in to the point of believing that the first-person narrator of this classic satire on humankind had gone quite mad, wherein no-one-escapes-the-jape. In other words, for some uncountable time, my world lay in a book, and that’s all there was.

By the end, of course, I’d feel a little silly, but oh-so thankful.

And to think the man, the writer, was eventually certified insane. By whom, one might ask, by whom? Thanks to this book, my dad’s over-cited favourite citation, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, finally made sense…

My next book may be scribed in the French language but all takes place in Algeria.

L’Etranger, by Albert Camus – first translated into English by Stuart Gilbert as The Outsider, and not a title I care for, but I’ll leave that one for another read, here <<.

It could be said that Camus’ first person ‘alien’ hero, Mersault, is even more skilfully achieved, in that here we have no fairytale encounters with Little and Large, but an everyday man going about his everyday business, and somewhat taciturnly at that it; barring, that is, a frightful encounter with a priest just prior to his execution, where, instead of yielding himself before his knees, of surrendering outpourings of contrition… there simply is no contrition; Mersault isn’t sorry for killing a man in ‘cold blood’ in the brutal Algerian midday sun, only that he should now be subjected to religious bigotry, be forced to feel something he does not, and be deprived of those utopian Algerian evenings.

Mersault, ultimately, verbally explodes with something as formidable as it gets; something as hot as that Mediterranean sun. And up until that point he has posed questions I once dare not ask. Indeed, I feared I didn’t have the language to articulate them, my feelings. But, as Camus himself once stated, this man at the forefront of existentialist thought, “Difficult concepts need only be expressed in simple words.”

He was a soulful character, Albert Camus. And as literary heroes go, Mersault? Well…

L’Etranger, by stark contrast to Swift’s masterpiece, I have read many, many times; I will never tire of it.

And so to 50s New York, and to a brownstone apartment buzzing with life, thanks wholly to the catalytic character that is Truman Capote’s creation Holly Golightly, in Breakfast At Tiffany's.

For me, in this case, the book and the film are as disparate as red wine and white; they’re different drinks from different grapes.
The Holly Golightly I see in my mind’s eye – to take nothing away from Audrey Hepburn – is the impish, cropped-headed blonde; one of the boys, but a real girl…

Funny, but I imagine old Joe Bell’s still standing around with a burning cigarette, outside his café on Lexington Avenue, silently yearning to set eyes on her once again: “I see pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight.”

I feel that sense of loss, of something never even attained; a childhood sweetheart, that first, secret, love; I feel what is truly meant by worshiping the ground upon which someone walks. That she might just recognise that I exist…

How can a novel do that?

I have yet to visit New York but, suffice it to say, the first thing I’ll do when… Or maybe not. Again, maybe that place is better left where it is…

For our next destination we return to France but for a German writer, in Emile Remarque, and his not-so-green-fields classic, fields amid the Great War of 1914-18, the one to end all wars…

My choices are not in order of preference, by the way, and nor have I left the best until last. But this one, All Quiet on the Western Front, a book “… intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling” – is possibly the one that speaks for itself most, in that it surely speaks to the public most; is the most well-known for the right reasons. It is the one, then, capable of creating tears from that normally well-hidden somewhere…

How well the German army characters become our friends, our families!

And we recognise how Paul Baumer, the novel’s principle character, is better left where he lies, never to return to his native Germany. For things would never have been the same, nay much for the worse, for the last of a happy breed of men.

But even when privileged with this knowledge, when first person narration moves to third, when the author steps in to inform us of the news of a sniper’s fatal bullet, but a day or two before the day of the Armistice, nothing is made any easier…

And it’s unlimately back to England.

I’ve allowed myself a play for number 5, by The Bard himself, since I feel it would be wrong to pick two Shakespeare plays from a choice of only five books: Henry IV part 2.

This play, like so many others taught me to appreciate the force of ambivalence in literature; and, moreover, to then witness it further brought to life upon a stage.

Ambivalence. To be torn. To be in two mind. Call it how you will, yet know there exists no easy answer; no easy way out. A man must be a man; must make a choice, for better or for worse.

And if Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne makes for provocative reading and viewing, the act is surpassed only, for me, by one of the most powerful theatrical acts ever to grace paper and a stage: Henry V’s rebuking of the debauched, though wonderfully comic, Jack Falstaff.

Was a literary, theatrical relationship ever greater, than between the latter and the former Prince Hal?

Immediately upon coronation, a worldly prince is transformed into a pious and responsible king; for the great that is to come – a wondrously led English success over a numerically far greater French army; William Shakespeare must wield the knife by way of a quill and eliminate the influential Falstaff from the page. And, oh, how our masterful playwright achieves the deed!

"I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!"

Even when typing out the lines, the hairs on the back of my neck are raised…

I know that many of you simply cannot reed plays from the page – plays are for performance, and all that. For me, conversely, the very idea of the text being a play adds something extra to my already imaginative mind, for the playwright never tell us how we should think.

Maybe just a little something for you to think about…

Funny, but when looking back to my own debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good…, it being part of what has since become a series entitled The Rowlings Years, I came to realise just how affected, influenced by the above books, and no doubt others, I was…

The power of words, eh.

What are your favourite five books? And why?

All pics courtesy of Wikipedia.

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My advice for writers dealing with so-called 'Writers' Block'.

I was going to write a piece about smoking for this post, given that cigarettes play something of a prominent role both in my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good, and its sequel, Nancy Boy: for one year only…

… but then I wasn’t quite sure of what just what I wanted to say about them, about cigarettes, at least this time around, other than the fact they’re bad for you, and you possibly already know that…

And so, this time around, I’d simply like to offer my opinion on that old authors’ bugaboo: ‘writers’ block’ – I can hear it all: ‘’Been done! Boring. The irony: Chris is writing about writers’ block because he’s totally uninspired – Tell us something about cigarettes!’

And you may well be right. For, at the end of the day, all I would like to say about it – well, there’s a clue in the above paragraph, where you’ll notice I placed my first mention of the ‘ailment’ in parenthesis, as I’ve just done again, there, with ‘ailment’. Why? Because there’s no such thing as ‘writers’ block’, but a mere whim amongst authors, an attention-seeker – How I suffer for my art, I was a genius, and now I’m a fraud!

But I’ll always have my writers’ block to fall back on – the ignorant masses: the non-authors; those out there doing real work, they’ll buy it, ’work a charm.

And so it goes, as somebody once said.

‘What, then, Chris, might we attribute to the state of being uninspired?’

In a word: fatigue. In another: tiredness. Mental exhaustion.

Prescription: go and do something else – a change is as good as a rest!

‘And for how long?’

As long as required – how long is a piece of string?

Creativity is a product of the subconscious, perpetually formulating your art whilst ever you, the author, are engaged in other activities – like taking your kids to school, or playing badminton on Thursday, each activity fuelling the mind. Save that, on some days, trying to force it, the creative process, before it’s ripe, can have the adverse effect…

I won’t go on, but to say that this has been my experience since I’ve been putting pen to paper, particularly with the above novels.

But here’s what inspired this post, thus confirming my philosophy: earlier today, amid my basking in another day away from the pen, as has been the case for last few days, I was lying in the bath whilst my beautiful other half sat on the side of it. We were chatting about how we’d arrived where we are today, via many an adventure and misadventure, I’m happy to say – I wouldn’t have had it any other way; for swords evolve into pens if you survive.

Anyhow, what evolved from this conversation was my mental formulation of a novel I’m in the process of writing.

How about that! It’s just a case of getting it down now, that’s all. Which will be when it so wishes to.

In the meantime, if you are an author, I hope this post has given you a better sense of perspective – or that you’ll at least give it a thought when it just isn’t happening for you.

pic, courtesy of pixabay

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On my previous site, when writing my first novel, Wood Talc & Mr. J; we never had it so good..., which is set in the 1970s, I managed to incorporate the book’s protagonist, Phillip Rowlings, into many of my posts covering everyday modern life, both by expressing my point of view and suggesting his own – or by considering how he might have perceived what, today, we take for granted.

Welcome to my new blog page, which, as with a previous blog site, I intend to be language oriented, of a literary bent in some form or other, and which isn’t as limited as you might think.

On my previous site, when writing my first novel, Wood Talc & Mr. J; we never had it so good..., which is set in the 1970s, I managed to incorporate the book’s protagonist, Phillip Rowlings, into many of my posts covering everyday modern life, both by expressing my point of view and suggesting his own – or by considering how he might have perceived what, today, we take for granted.

In time, the posts themselves – or 22 of them – ended up in book form; namely

22 DAYDREAMS (or Wood, Talc & Mr. J, my social media ramblings thereof)

I therefore thought it apt to begin how I left off, by uploading said book’s opening post as a taster; a blast from the past, from the past...

... a wordsmith at YOUR service.

sweet perfumes of the past (the way we were, the way we wore, the way we stank...)

3rd August 2013

(author’s note: I need only go a day without taking a shower and I’m soon reminded of this post)

A friend of mine told me I wasn’t doing myself justice by having the second chapter of my debut novel, Wood, Talc & Mr. J: We never had it so good... hidden away in ‘extracts’. He also thought this post ought to be about the second chapter. I half agreed, in that I'm more inclined to relate a recent experience to finished work, which is what I've done here.

Here's what I came up with.

It all started in ‘The Range’ – it’s a chain; one of their selling lines is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!”. A debatable point, but it’s not a bad shop, and most of our picture-frames have come from there, along with the odd lamp and flat-pack wardrobe. Anyhow, a couple of days ago, me, my girlfriend, and our little girl, were in there looking for a few odds and ends. Ten minutes in and I was already at the checkout – I don’t mind shopping if it’s quick. I had another couple of large picture-frames under an arm and was wrestling to pull my wallet from my jeans-pocket with my other hand, when, ouff, I was hit by what felt like a large rubber hammer… or rather a large, smelly rubber hammer…

I looked about me. There was no-one around, barring the good looking lady plonking her bits down at the checkout, just in front of me, and another equally attractive lady scanning those bits once plonked; that was it: the two ladies and me. I must emphasise here that neither of them looked like they were capable of smelling like a whorehouse a low tide – they were slim, casually smart.

Yet one of them did smell; and my nostrils hadn’t experienced body odour of that magnitude since … – I won’t make jokes about my having lived in France for a number of years – … since… I’ll keep thinking.

In the meantime, I had a crisis: With an educated guess, only one of the ladies was in dire need of a shower. What, then, if the other thinks it’s me? Me, rotting at the checkout? Let’s face it, men, without labouring on such sexism, out of ten people, how many would vote against the stinker being a man? And the only thing this particular stink wasn’t was visible! It all got me thinking about that second chapter – indeed, stinky people is one of many sub-themes in the novel; I guess it would come under the more general theme of personal hygiene.

After all, it’s 1978. A northern industrial town. Nothing’s mentioned directly in the second chapter, but any reader with a little imagination – especially someone from a similar time and place; a bloody depressing time and place in many aspects – doesn’t need to try too hard for those kinds of wafts to ooze from the pages, along with such culinary perfumes as hash and pancakes, perfected by the very capable hands of mum, inside the steamy confines of a six by six kitchen on a winter’s evening.

Phillip, the novel’s hero, actually refers to his hygiene problem at the end of Chapter 3: he’s permitted the one bath per week, on a Friday, and if he misses it, tough.

He doesn’t get changed before having his tea, either, and this is after a nine/ten hour day spent up to his eyes in grime – you could think of it as being after three nine/ten hour days spent up to his eyes in grime, remembering that it’s now a Wednesday evening, and that he has another two days to go before he can wallow in that precious soap and water; same goes for the clothes.

And when he finally does “get his kit off”, on this Wednesday evening, in Chapter 5, the nearest he comes to soap and water is via his best friend’s fetish for…

No, I’m not telling you. You’ll have to read the book.

The way we were… Could it be that it was all so simple then? Like hell, Barbara! You got soul but I’m not so sure it was all that simple... then. We stank and there’s no getting away from it (although I can't imagine it having been the same for Babs and Bob, somehow...). Of course, we were rescued from the idea by the fact that, well, we were all in the same boat, as it were. Or same shithole, to not beat about the bush.

The way we were… Certain authors, wits, have commented on such halcyon days and beyond as being more about ‘The Way We Wore’. I don’t normally go for those kinds of books; I don't like someone telling me how and what I wore. Still, even with a cursory eye, I've never read anyone comment on the way we stank. The nearest for me was back in those very days: I happened to read somewhere what being ‘Mod’ meant to The Who’s ex-manager, Pete Meaden, in an interview around the late 60s. He said that: "Modism, Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances."

I liked that, it sounded great – he used a word with four syllables for a start. And so I tried it on a member of the opposite sex. I just wasn’t counting on her asking me what an aphorism was.

The thing, though, was that I couldn’t otherwise relate to the line. Because it felt to me like there existed no such war. Clean was impossible; it was more about dirty living under difficult circumstances – next stop the plague! But what we have to remind ourselves is that Pete Meaden's idea of “clean living” was from a 1960s perspective.

And this is what my little post’s about, I think: how times have changed vastly, within, say, the last thirty years, and on so many levels, regarding the homes in which we live.

Only a few years on from the days in which the second chapter is set, as with the rest of the novel, I took up badminton. We never talked about our evident enthusiasm for the game, my friend and me, whom I played and also worked with, in the same factory, or cesspit. There was a relatively new sports centre in the city – which, as a concept back then, was one step down from a spaceship – and that was it! I know now – and knew then, without doubt – that our enthusiasm was largely based on the thought of being able to shower afterwards – three nights a week! I think the biggest clue was that, whenever the other prisoners – I never thought of them as work-colleagues in those days – would ask who’d won the games, we’d both look at one another, my friend and me, each of us waiting for the other to do the honours; I’d just want to say: ‘Who gives a shit, I’m clean!!’

I also developed a love for a thing called ‘deodorant’. Mine came in a silver and white plastic guise; Right Guard. I’d play with it on the bus, smell and smile at it – shouldn’t I have been fiddling with the cat gut on my Yonex racket by then? I was clearly looking forward to the end bit of our evening – well, the bit prior to the well-earned pint; I couldn't go straight home smelling this good. Furthermore, the toilet inside the sports centre was exactly what it said on the tin: “indoors” – just about everything was indoors.

I’ve recently read Helga Schneider’s The Bonfire of Berlin. It’s the last days of the German Reich. Berlin is being bombed to hell, and the lucky ones, those still alive, must spend their lives crammed in cellars with no sanitation. Indeed, they must live with nothing at all, in modern day terms, and on an indefinite basis. As one old man describes it: "The stench of the corpses in Berlin might even be bearable if it weren't for the stench of the living!" How those poor souls must have stunk. And I thought we'd had it bad…

It brings me back to my experience in The Range the other day, and that selling line, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!” And yet, somebody was plainly in need of a bath – followed by superfluous amounts of Right Guard, to make up for lost time and all that. For some of us, life was a bit harder than today. Moreover, imagine that more than 783 million people today are still without access to water; 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation. And every twenty seconds, a child dies as a result of it… Makes you think. Maybe we should all sit down together once in a while and take stock. As long as the lady in The Range takes a shower beforehand, for the sake of those of us who once couldn’t. And more so for those out there who still can’t…

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