Sunday, 31 August 2008

Quick Poetry Quiz

  1. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more... what?
  2. Whose poems about our furry friends are now a famous musical?
  3. Andrew... is the current UK poet laureate?
  4. Which poet wrote 'On his blindness'?
  5. 'District and Circle' is a collection by which well known poet?
  6. Binary poetic feet are divided into the iamb, the trochee, the phyrric and the... what?
  7. Ok, the first line of Larkin's 'This be the Verse' is quite well known, but how many of you can remember any of the second stanza?
  8. Pessimism for Beginners, The Hero and the Girl Next Door, First of the Last Chances, and Leaving and Leaving You are all collections by which of my favourite poets?
  9. 14 lines rhymed abab cdcd efef gg is a description of which famous poetic form?
  10. Scotland's national poet and an ex-scot poet living in South Africa. Both wrote in varient scots dialects. Who are they?

Above there are ten questions drifting randomly between the straightforward and the fiendishly obscure. I'll put the answers in the comments in a couple of days.

Friday, 29 August 2008

The End is... Here.

About ten minutes ago, I finished the first draft of the comic fantasy novel I've been working on. All 85 322 words of it, according to my computer. I'm going for a lie down.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Random Academic Thoughts

  • Have you noticed that, in acedemia, everyone talks about interdisciplinary study? But how many people genuinely bother reading works from other areas of study? (I write this with a bookmark sticking out of an introduction to social anthropology, which I'm reading for no apparent reason)
  • Why do so many economists insist on thinking of their subject as a hard science? Surely it makes more sense to see it as largely a subset of work in group psychology.
  • Why is there always someone in every academic year group who doesn't go to any lectures? Why, when it's a friend of mine who shall remain nameless, does he then go on to pass everything with excellent marks?
  • Do History and Archaeology departments get those jumpers at some sort of bulk rate? If so, where's mine?
  • How is it that tenured professors always seem to have acquired pieces of furniture for their offices that can't possibly have fitted through the doors?
  • Have you noticed that lecturers fall into two basic categories? There are the ones who wear suits all the time, and there are the ones who leave them behind the office door in case a meeting shows up unexpectedly.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Tom Holt, Barking

Solicitor Duncan Hughes hates his job. His boss thinks he lacks killer instinct, he has no social life, his wife has left him, and he can't even get the Bowden Allshapes probate accounts to balance. Even so, when old friend Luke Ferris walks back into his life offering him a job he initially rejects it, mostly for the simple reason that he doesn't want to be part of Luke Ferris' gang any more. Being fired changes that, and he quickly finds that it isn't a gang, it's a pack.

An hilarious romp full of werewolves, vampires, zombies, unicorns and lawyers, this twists and turns as Duncan tries to work out such things as: why are people trying to kill him? Why do werewolves never have to pay for their own drinks? Why are unicorns such fun to chase? And why can't he get those bloody probate accounts to balance?

This is great stuff from Holt, making full use of his time as a country solicitor to recreate the full oddness of the English legal profession and push it over into the realms of the fantastic. The characters are full and believable even at their most fantastic and the plot bounces along at a decent rate. It's an odd plot, like most of Holt's, and the resolution turns out to be one of those slightly too simple ones that could be a bit unsatisfying in anyone else's hands. In Holt's, however, the thing is dealt with perfectly, with just the right emphasis on the characters to distract from that simplicity. This really is a very funny book.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008


I'm up past 80 000 words now, and almost to the end. A few of the end things might actually work better a little more condensed than I originally planned, so only a few more thousand to a completed draft.

Monday, 25 August 2008

On Writing Exercises

I have to admit, I don't do that many writing excerises at the moment. I'm a bit busy with the actual writing. Even so, when I did go through a phase of doing them, I noticed one important thing: people seem to plunge headlong into books full of the things without considering what they actually want to improve first.

This doesn't seem to make a great deal of sense. It's not something you'd do in most other endeavours. If you went to the gym, determined to get fit, most places these days wouldn't point you vaguely at the machines and tell you to get on with it. They'd have an induction, where they told you how to use the things, but more importantly where they asked you what your exercise goals were and suggested what you needed to do to meet them. If you were practising a musical instrument, you'd do exercises that allowed you to develop the weak areas of your playing, while building towards the pieces of music you wanted to be able to play. You need to assess what you actually want to get out of the thing before you charge in.

It's here that my years as a fencer come in. Thanks to a spell spent with a fencing instructor who was also a lecturer in psychology, I now know a rather annoying exercise that just happens to be perfect for this. Draw a circle. On the outside of that circle write your next goal as a fen... sorry, writer, along with a score out of ten (or sixteen, or a hundred, or twenty three and a half, depending on what number you feel like scoring things out of) according to how close you think you are to being able to accomplish it. That goal might be something very general, like becoming a competent and well rounded writer, or it might be something more specific, like writing a novel. In the case of the general stuff, you need to ask yourself how you'll know when you've achieved it.

Next, start dividing the circle up into segments. Each segment is an attribute, skill, habit etc that you think is relevant to achieving the goal. Make the segments wider or narrower according to how important you think that thing is in reaching your goal. Yes, it's a pie chart. If it's good enough for Florence Nightingale, it's good enough for us. Now, score each segment as you did your progress towards your goal, only this time the scores represent how close to the level of that thing needed to achieve your goal you are. You should now know what things you need to work on, and what things you're just practising from habit.

There, that was easy, and it only wasted a monster footwork session's worth of time when Jonathon had us doing it.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The End is (sort of) Nigh

I'm probably about ten to fifteen thousand words off completing the first draft of the novel, and about eight to ten from a completed version of the PhD. One thing I've noticed with both is that I've actually been slowing down as I get near the end. I don't think that's lack of interest as the initial rush peters out, because I was there with the PhD two years ago. Instead, I think I'm actually slowing down because I'm sorry to see the end of things I've been putting so much effort into. I know that I've been putting in the work in order to get to the end, but the thought of actually reaching it creates sudden thoughts of a big blank, unplanned space after it.

Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye, Myth Told Tales

A brief review, since I haven't done one in a while. This rather slender volume is a collection of short stories from the inventer of the Myth Inc fantasy series, Robert Asprin and his writing partner on the series for the last few years, Jody Lynn Nye. It was put together at the very start of their association, and so marks the transition between the first batch of Myth books and the second.

The first thing to note is that all of the stories are Myth Inc. based, so anyone who isn't already a fan of the series is likely to be lost, bewildered, and probably put off, even though the stories are actually quite entertaining. Most of them rely on characters and traits already introduced for their effectiveness, so this probably isn't a good place to start. Read from the beginning like everyone else. (Particularly since there are lovely compendia of the early stories available)

The short stories are lively enough, but I have to admit a lot of them had a tentative feel to them. It's hardly surprising, since the volume was a dry run for the partnership. It does mean though that a few of the short stories lack a certain edge, as though the authors were both unwilling to take any risks with a world they planned on doing far more with. Even so, it's a good read, and it's fun to see Asprin working in the shorter medium.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Two things

Two things, though I can't help the feeling that there ought to be a third somewhere. It will come to me.

First, I've finally (finally!) gotten round to re-submitting the novel where everything went wrong with the publishers. Having done the author bio bit, I can confirm that I still hate talking about myself in the third person.

Secondly, one of my short stories 'fishing for worlds' has been accepted for the September issue of Semaphor magazine. I'll put up more when it goes up.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


That's 70,000 words out of the way. To celebrate, a picture of a butterfly that landed in my bathroom.

Brushes with Fame

Sparked by a question from a meme I can't remember the location to. I really must look that up. The question: have you ever met anybody famous. The answer: probably not.

Some people, it seems, are constantly running into celebraties. Take my father, for example, who once spent an evening drinking with Robert Plant in a hotel bar, but on the bartender saying 'you know who that is, don't you? That's Robert Plant, from Led Zeppelin.' found himself thinking 'What's a Led Zeppellin?'. His taste in music didn't get much beyond Dave Brubeck. Given that he also spent some time chatting to Bruce Dickenson (of Iron Maiden fame) at a fencing tournament I was taking part in, I've got to wonder if he's a magnet for that sort of thing. Apparently Mr Dickenson rather liked my mother's baking, since he devoured most of the apple pie she'd put towards the catering for the event. I was too busy getting beaten on a completely different piste to notice.

My own closest brush with the famous comes from sitting on a train leaving Coventry which was delayed a little after going down the wrong track. The rather rotund gentleman opposite me made a number of jokes about it, but really I found him a bit annoying. It only occurred to me later that this chap looked and sounded remarkably like comedian and presenter Phil Jupitus.

On the other hand, I know James Hunt, Eric Coates and David Starkey. Sadly they aren't those James Hunts, Eric Coates and David Starkeys. James is not a dead motor racer, but a fellow fencer. Eric is my next door neighbour, but has to my knowledge never composed the theme for any major motion pictures. David is not the TV historian, but is rather the other, non-TV one.

It just goes to show... though exactly what it goes to show I'm not sure.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

On cricket teas.

I can barely move at the moment, thanks to my first cricket match for about three weeks, and my first forty over match for about that many months. Three overs, one wicket for eight runs isn't a bad return, but I'm definitely going to feel this in the morning.

The resemblance between cricket teas and a children's birthday party has been commented on before, but it's a real one. Paper plates, tiny sandwiches in quarters (occasionally with the crusts cut off) and just enough bits of pizza and sausages to disguise the fact that most of the spread consists of cake. One look at some of the fielding even suggests that clowns might have shown up.

Friday, 15 August 2008


  • Just when I thought my cricket season was over, it turns out I'm playing tomorrow. I suppose I should be thankful for other people's holidays.
  • The Olympic cycling, sailing and rowing are all reaching the medal stages, so most of the UK's best chances for medals are coming up. As for my fellow sword wielding people, Kruse and O'Connell both went out in the first round, right on cue. Slightly more unexpected was that Russia's Sergei Podzniakov went out in the last 32 of the sabre. He wins World Championships for fun, so why does he find the Olympics so hard?
  • I can't even remember half the stuff I've been reading in the past few days, which probably shows how much of an impression it's making. I'm about half way through Tanya Huff's Smoke and Ashes though, which is good so far. She has a real eye for detail, not to mention some quirky ideas that stretch the usual urban fantasy stuff.
  • Must find birthday card for my brother. It would be easier if he didn't hate birthdays so much.
  • For the first time in ages, I didn't write anything yesterday. I'm calling it a holiday. Emphatically not a block.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Aphelion's up

Midway through the month and the new issue of Aphelion is up, featuring my poem 'The bride of frankenherbert'. It's every bit as silly as it sounds.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Poetry reading meme

Almost everyone seems to write poetry, but practically no one seems to read it. Hasn't anyone worked out the flaw in this? Anyway, to see if you're bothering to read the stuff, a meme. Feel free to be tagged.

Have you ever written poetry? You haven't been paying attention to this blog, have you? Honestly, what sort of person asks me that question? (hang on, it's me, isn't it?)

How often do you read poetry by others? Pretty much every day.

Do you know where the poetry section of your nearest bookshop is? Upstairs, sandwiched between sport, religion, and a number of books on lacemaking.

Do you know the title of a poetry magazine, zine or journal based in your home town? Have you read it? There's one called The Slab, which comes out of Hull. Technically not my home town, but near enough. As for reading it, give me a chance, I only bought a copy two hours ago and I've been reading other things.

When was the last time you bought a poetry magazine or collection? Guess. Also, I got a copy of Benjamin Zephaniah's Too Black, Too Strong.

What was the last poem you read that you loved? Probably 'Firewalker' by Frances Leviston.

And the last you hated? Well, I read a book of concrete poetry the other day. I'm sorry if you feel a particular attachment to the stuff, but as far as I'm concerned it's graphic design, not poetry.

Are there any poets who you've surprised yourself by liking or hating? I was quite surprised to find myself enjoying Larkin after determining that I would hate him, and almost equally surprised to find I don't like much of Betjeman's work. There must be something wrong with me.

Finally, have you ever felt the need to memorise a poem? I've done this exactly three times with other people's work. The first with a silly poem for children. The second with sonnet 18 from Shakespeare ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day...') and finally 'This be the verse' by Larkin. All together now: 'They fuck you up, your mum and...'

(Incidentally, should anyone find themselves offended by the language, please remember that it is a: a fairly arbitrary social taboo, and b: almost certainly what our dear librarian wanted. Don't give him the satisfaction)

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Politics and Sport

Earlier, in the Olympics, a pair of Georgian and Russian competitors who managed gold and silver embraced, saying that sport and politics ought to be kept separate. I appreiciate the friendliness of the gesture, but the message is utter nonsense.

It's one we've been asked to put up with quite a lot in recent months. First, the International Cricket Council voted to retain Zimbabwe as a full member despite the evils being perpetrated in that country, on the basis that politics and sport should be separate. Then the IOC took to chanting it every time China's human rights record was mentioned.

The problem is that they are inextriacably linked. I'm reminded of the advert that ran in the UK a while ago encouraging people to vote. It featured a man down a pub who said that he didn't 'do' politics, and didn't want to discuss it. He then found that almost everything he said connected to it somehow.

The link between sport and politics is overt. Sport between two countries is usually seen as a way of showing that they get on. Indeed, in the ancient Greek Olympics, a general truce between the competing Greek states was supposed to apply for the duration of the event. China, meanwhile, apparrently hopes to use this Olympics to mark its 'coming out' as one of the most important forces on the world stage, while showing the world just how lovely it is. That sounds remarkably like political significance to me.

Now, I'm not proposing that any kind of boycott of the Games should have occurred. I don't think that would have been fair to the atheletes, and if a clean human rights record were a pre-requisite of holding the things we might have a problem finding somewhere to have them. Luxembourg possibly. Zimbabwe is a different matter. The sheer scale of the abuses in that collapsing state make it ludicrous that any kind of contact should be maintained, let alone sporting contact. That such contact has been maintained is a testiment to the internal politics of the ICC, and the hypocracy of governments (especially the UK one) who condemn the sporting contact while allowing businesses to continue trading there.

Most importantly, I think is that we owe it to our own intelligence to maintain an awareness of the political consequences of actions like these, and to avoid the phrase 'politics and sport shouldn't mix' wherever possible.

Saturday, 9 August 2008


That's sixty thousand words out of the way. Next stop, War and Peace.

Also, I've just read Alice in Wonderland for the first time. I'm sorry to say I was rather disappointed. Certainly very imaginative and silly, but there doesn't seem to be much else to it. Even a book for children deserves some measure of depth.

A Rather Silly Poem

She Wants A Poet

There are moments when I rhyme
There are moments when I scan
It seems that just from time to time
I am her perfect sort of man

A poet’s what she wants, she says
And I can write in neat rhyme schemes
It seems in almost every way
I am the boyfriend of her dreams

Of course, she’s gone and changed her mind
She now likes poems to be free
It seems I must go out and find
Another sort of man to be

Friday, 8 August 2008

Bands and Orchestras

There appears to come a time in every rock musician's career when they decide that what they really, really want from life is to perform with a hundred piece orchestra. Here are some of the more interesting results.

  1. Metallica, S&M. That's the San Francisco Philamonic and Metallica, for anyone who was wondering. One of the few examples of the genre that's actually really rather good, providing a great live set lent extra drama by the additional orchestration. From before the St Anger album too, so none of the rubbish from that.
  2. Deep Purple, Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The original, and still the... no, I can't say that with a straight face. Contributed to one of the bands many (many, many...) break ups.
  3. Steve Vai, Sound Theories Vols 1&2. Volume one is reworkings of many of his better known (for a given value of better known. Obviously no non-guitarist will ever have heard any of his work, which is actually something of a pity.) works. Volume two is a collection of pieces Vai wrote in his other capacity as a composer. Too odd for my tastes, and hardly the best introduction to his old stuff. Get The 7th Song instead.
  4. Yngwie Malmsteen, Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra. Every bit as pretentious and overblown as the title suggests, but great fun. Actually one of his better albums because A) we don't have to put up with his dated idea of what makes a good song, and B) he actually has some vague respect for the abilities of orchestral musicians, which is more than he ever seems to have for his bandmates.
  5. Dream Theatre apparently performed with an orchestra on one of their tours, but I haven't been able to find an album that came from it. Frankly, I'm surprised they needed the extra instruments, this being a band that dragged a full size gong into position every night as part of the percussion set up, but only used it in one song, which they only played every other night.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

A List of Things...

...that interest me. An assortment of random things that my brain occasionally alights on like some grey, squishy butterfly. Principally as a way of reminding myself that I care about more than just writing, writing and more writing.

  1. Medieval history, funnily enough.
  2. The physics of spheres moving through the air. I know more about the magnus/robins effect, boundary layers and wake effects than I ever really thought I'd want to, thanks to an interest in why cricket balls do what I don't want them to.
  3. Cricket.
  4. Music.
  5. Music theory.
  6. The fine detail of how physical actions work. Tiny changes in the way we use our bodies can make a huge difference in the results.
  7. The broad principles behind things. I like the idea that most things can be understood in broad terms which are then useful elsewhere.
  8. The Roman invasion of Britain. Particularly the process of 'romanisation' that Martin Millet posited years ago.
  9. Fencing. But only sabre. Prodding people is boring.
  10. The role of persuasion in the history of ideas, particularly the thought that occasionally real change occurred by either mentioning an idea over and over until people accepted it as natural or by persuading them that it had already happened.
  11. Books.
  12. The internal rhythms of poetry.
  13. Cheese.
  14. Cats.
  15. Martial arts and methods of self defence, though less than they did. Maybe it's the constant insistence from arrogant eighteen year olds that nothing but what they do works.
  16. The horrors being perpetrated against the English language by: Texters, youth culture, inventors of business jargon, my local council.
  17. Mathematics, which is a bit unfortunate since I've forgotten most of what I was taught. Medieval counting mostly seems to have gone 1,2,3...10,11, a great innumerable horde. Actually, that's not true, except for armies, where it is.
  18. Anthropology, Archeology, Psychology, Sociology, etc... Basically, if it's an ology, I'll try and read bits of it to understand the history stuff better. Also because each subject seems to spend time reinventing the wheel, going over ground that the others have already done.
  19. The basic questions of philosophy, which isn't the same thing as being interested in philosophers. Most of them couldn't write coherently, fudged key sections of argument, and seem to have been principally interested in telling us we couldn't know anything.
  20. Writing. I had to get it in somewhere.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Estella's Up

The new edition of Estella's Revenge is up, featuring, among other loveliness, my know it all awards for literature. The link ought to be somewhere vaguely to your left.

In a completely unconnected, heartfelt plea to the universe as a whole, would someone somewhere please submit something to the Ancient Hearts Zine. Being the first contributor to the new online incarnation is kind of cool. Being the only contributor ever slightly less so. There's such a thing as taking exclusivity too far.

Monday, 4 August 2008

A is for...

art, or possibly Art. The capital letter is important, and has become one of my pet hates at the moment. Perhaps my attempts to write poetry have simply brought me into contact with too many people who feel that it should be Art, and not art. It's a division you find in lots of artistic fields, between the Art of Jazz and Classical music and the art of Pop, between the Art of ballet and the art of modern urban dance, or between the Art of impossible to understand installations and the sort of nice, pleasant picture that your next door neighbour might paint.

So, what's the difference? Well, at its most basic, it seems to be a division between complex, theoretically informed 'serious' Art and the sort of normal, enjoyable stuff everybody engages with. Now, I suppose there might be a vague sort of point to it somewhere, since most of us can recognise that an expert artist is probably producing better stuff than some kid's fingerpainting. If that's the case, then we all differentiate art by quality.

But it has often ceased to be about that. I used the example above of the difference between Jazz (which is Art) and pop (which is art) does this mean that the sort of annoying elevator jazz that would never dare go near a wrong note is somehow automatically Art, while the Beatles will never qualify as it? From painting to music to poetry, it has become all too often simply a question of producing work in the right style.

Worse, Art as a whole has become infected by the sort of postmodernist reading that can be incredibly annoying. 'Wow,' they say 'who'd have thought it? This art stuff doesn't have any automatic connection to any meaning. These rules about what sounds/looks/reads nice are artificial constructions. THEREFORE not only is there no reason to follow any of them ever again, but we SHOULDN'T follow any of them ever again. It will be a nice way of showing that we know that none of this is real.'

What this seems to mean, in the more extreme cases, is that the division has deepened irrevocably. It's got to the point in some cases where to produce something nice, or beautiful, or likeable is to be thought of as selling out. It's at the point where the art has gone through the stage of being all about the message (and that's bad enough. If you're not going to back it up with beauty, why not just hire a billboard?) and out the other side, into the zone where the only message is 'I'll do what I want, because nothing actually matters.' It's the sort of nihilism that you might expect from a teenager wearing far too much makeup, not from those supposedly at the cutting edge of culture.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

We're not worthy

I've finished reading Wicked at long last. It provides a surprisingly human take on the Wizard of Oz story, but the main character is possibly a little too spikey. Since then I've been reading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, which has reminded me of one important thing: I shouldn't read too much of the greats of a particular genre just after writing in it.

It seems like a silly rule, doesn't it? But imagine the scene. I've just switched off my computer after writing another thousand words of what I think is pretty good comic fantasy, I've picked up this book, and I've come face to face with comedy that is sharper, funnier, and simply better than what I've just written. Yes, of course I'll make it better with the next draft, but it's still a great way of making yourself feel inferior. I'm put in mind of those musicians who've insisted that they gave up playing for a week or two after hearing the likes of Jeff Beck or Art Tatum, simply because they knew they'd never play quite that well. Hopefully, I'll also emulate the next bit, which is to plunge back into it with renewed effort.

In other news, both England cricket captains have resigned. We'll find out who the new one is tomorrow (ish) and I suspect that Andrew Strauss is probably the strongest contender, but until then I can at least hope that (overly exciteable spinner) Monty Panesar gets the gig.

Friday, 1 August 2008


Since I seem to be ticking off the increments of 10000, that's 50000 words out of the way.

It was the last evening league cricket match of the season yesterday, and an utter farce. We played it more or less as a friendly, but took it too far, reversing the batting order and opening with part time bowlers. I batted, getting probably 15 runs, but didn't bowl. My brother, who ended up batting 10 out of 11 and didn't bowl, was understandably furious, particularly when the opposition took it a fraction more seriously and won. It just goes to show that in cricket, as in so much in life, having fun is one thing, not giving what you're doing the respect it deserves quite another.

My final bowling aggregate for the season then: 8 overs, 7 wickets for 59 runs for a final average of just over 8.43 at a strike rate of 6.86 deliveries per wicket. If the opposition weren't so awful, this would be very good indeed.

I'm still reading Wicked which seems to be one of those books to read in short bursts. At least, it's very fragmented. Also, it seems to bog down a little in the second half.