Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Thomas Becket

A post about Thomas Becket, mostly because you think about all sorts of things while mindlessly trying new tactics to get people to take up fencing (Most effective: 'You! Yes you, in the hat! Join the fencing club. Particularly useful if they weren't in fact wearing a hat, since they were usually sufficiently confused by it to do as they were told)

Things people know about Thomas Becket: He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was killed, possibly at the suggestion of Henry II, on 29th December 1170.

Things slightly fewer people know about Thomas Becket: He was never, ever, EVER called Thomas a Becket. You wouldn't call me Stuart a Sharp, would you? No? Then stop it. The murder came after a long build up of tension over the relative claims over justice of the English King and the Pope, with such things as the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164, and a statute in 1169 warning of dire consequences should anyone actually observe the Pope's interdict against the King. All of this, as we know, led eventually to Henry doing a spot of sledging in 1174 so that he could get to the Pope and ask forgiveness, which the Pope couldn't really refuse, getting rid of several of Henry's problems at a stroke.

Things almost no one knows about Thomas Becket: He was Provost of the Minster church of my home town of Beverley in 1163, though he gave it up when he got the abovementioned better offer from Canterbury. There isn't much sign of him actually going there, though he does briefly recommend in one of his letters that a friend should go there because the air or the water or something there will be good for his health. More evidence that he just got the gig as a way for Beverley's canons to get an impressive name on-side, since much of Beverley was apparently surrounded by stinking marsh at that point.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Back to School

Well, not school, but you get the idea. My first day back at university (not that I actually get holidays) and several things are immediately obvious.

  • They keep making freshers younger just to wind me up
  • The queues never get any shorter
  • I'll still be working on this PhD when I'm ninety. Except I won't, because I'm finishing it this year. I'll just have to work harder. Maybe I'll have to promise no more novel length pieces of writing until it's done.
  • My computer doesn't have much longer. It does, it turns out, have a USB port, but is back from the days when people thought that was mostly just for printers. It doesn't have the drivers for actual USB stick functions. Anyway, the thing is hidden behind the back where I have to tip the whole console out of its cubby hole to get at it. And it's running slower these days. Probably time to upgrade. Like I can afford that after paying my tuition fees.
  • Fencing equipment supplier Leon Paul still haven't got the idea that we don't want to pay £100 for a mask or a jacket, not when one of their competitors is offering them for half that. On the other hand, they did send the fencing club some lovely posters that we will no doubt be using for advertising in tomorrow's attempt to part freshers from their cash. The AU's annual sports fayre, as it's otherwise known.

Loud Enough?

The other day, I was listening to radio four, for no apparent reason, and ran into their segment 'Poetry Please' where listeners' poetry requests are read out. Aside from reinforcing my thought that the average person, when they think of poetry at all, thinks of old poetry, it did reinforce the importance of the way poetry is read. They had someone reading through Rossetti's 'Goblin Market' and the reading was, to my ears at least, utterly awful. But it did get me thinking. How often, when you read poetry, do you read it aloud? If you don't, I'd recommend it. It captures the rhythm and weight of the words better than the eye ever can. At least when not read on radio four by someone who insists on silly voices and unnattural stresses.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Dead Poets...

Take a look at my bookshelves for a moment. Don't mind the mess. You'll probably notice that there's a copy of Christina Rossetti's collected poems sitting airily somewhere towards the top. Sylvia Plath's Ariel is sulking further down. Somewhere in the middle there's Donne, Blake, Yeats, Murray...

They've all got one thing in common, which is that they're, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. I've also got some stuff by living poets tucked away, but I suspect that the dead poets outnumber them. More importantly, I suspect that's true of almost every other poetry reader's bookcase as well.

Why should that be? Unless we're from the seventeenth century, I suspect that Seamus Heaney or Tracy Ryan speaks more to our immediate concerns than John Donne, and yet I'm more likely to return to 'the fever' than anything out of District and Circle. Perhaps the answer is that very often modern poets don't address universal concerns so much as the minutiae of life. As it happens, I think that both of the above modern poets do manage to cover broader themes by expanding from moments of narrow focus, but many don't. Somehow, the classic poets seem to have been more inclined to touch on the big themes. Maybe it's just that they were expected to.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Write Idea

I've finally gotten round to adding a link to the online writing group I favour: The Write Idea. Anyone in search of such a thing should certainly give the place a try. They're a friendly bunch, and have even been known to put up with my poetry.

Friday, 26 September 2008


  • It's suprisingly hard to create good, serious copy. Not only have I been trying to put together some short articles, which is proving hard enough, but also I had to come up with something for Hull University's Fencing Club, because the AU wanted 100 words on each of their sports. Trying to pare everything down to 100 words while still trying to attract people to the club was surprisingly difficult, despite the selling point that you get to hit complete strangers with swords.
  • My poem 'Tea Ceremony' has gone up here:
  • I'm about half-way through the first batch of rewrites on the novel. So far I haven't run into anything that needs huge amounts of changing, which maybe shows that this planning-it-in-detail-first stuff works. Or I'm utterly blind to my own faults, one or the other.
  • Yorkshire's cricket team probably won't get relegated to the second division of the County Championship after all. Yay!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Three Retirements

Since it's very nearly the end of the cricket season in England, there has been the usual wave of retirements recently. Three of them in particular seemed to deserve some comment.

  1. Graham Hick. Worcester and England batter with more first class hundreds than any player currently in the game. He came to England from Zimbabwe in his teens, and had to wait 5 years to qualify for England's national side. During that time, everyone was talking about how he was the greatest player they'd ever seen and how he'd score millions at international level. It never quite worked out like that, since a succession of very fast bowlers worked him over, leading to an international average only in the thirties. He was messed around by the national selectors, being picked and dropped again far too many times. At county level though, he was, even at the age of forty, a player to be feared.
  2. Darren Gough. Yorkshire, England, Essex and then Yorkshire again fast bowler who formed one half of England's only real bowling partnership in the 1990s with Andy Caddick. It probably would have worked better if the two of them could have got on for five minutes, but Gough was still dangerous, swinging the ball at over 90 mph at his best. Even towards the end of his career he remained capable of operating in the mid-80s, and his knack of bowling in the final few overs of a one day match earned him a call up as recently as a couple of years ago. He has also spent the season captaining Yorkshire (mostly to a series of defeats) Will probably be remembered as much for his exuberant personality as for his achievements on that score.
  3. Mushtaq Ahmed. Short, fat, and with a beard with more grey in it than the rest of the county circuit put together, Mushie hardly looked like the most dangerous leg-spinner on the county circuit. He was though, bowling Sussex to consecutive county championships while taking more wickets than anyone else might have thought possible. His international career was less spectacular, and he found himself overshadowed both by the great Pakistani pace attacks he shared a team with and by the emergence of great spinners in the form of Warne, Kumble, Muralitharan etc... Even so, it was a sad day when his knees finally called time on a hugely prolific career.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Silly Poem

A silly poem about my occasional tendency to write poems about cheese. Yes, I know it's weird, but I'm easily bored. Also I tend to send out my serious poems so that they can sit on people's desks for a few weeks before being rejected. It's a nice holiday for them.

A Poem About Cheese Poems

I’m writing poems about cheese
Nothing you can do to stop me
Not cry, rage, threaten or say please
Or place large weights atop me

Cheese poems are, you say, perverse
Strange, weird, and so you pester
I grin and set my thoughts to verse
On cheddar and Red Leicester

I cannot say what set me off
On products made of milk
Just that I love to rhyme with Brie,
And others of that ilk

You said I didn’t give a damn
About you and you left dear
But left me rhyming with Edam
And so I didn’t quite hear

But now, my sweet, for you I’ve gone
And stopped, I’ve given up the ghost
Instead, I’ll write my poems on
Cornflakes, marmalade and toast

Monday, 22 September 2008

Flash Magazine

If anyone reading this has a fondness for writing very short fiction, someone over at Chester University has started Flash Magazine, featuring pieces of work of 360 words or less. Submission details can be found through the link below.



Over the past few days, I've been trying to remember how to fence, ahead of going back to university. Just doing the little things, like trying to remember how those dents got into the guard of my sabre (the answer: my friend John's face. I've never really got the hang of moving out of the way) The thing is, I invariably take the summer off, because the local clubs happen to clash with nights when I'm playing cricket in the summer (or not playing cricket because it's all been rained off at the last minute) so every September I have to get the feel of the thing back. The actual techniques are the easy part, but it's the small things (distance, timing, remembering not to call the opponent names) that seem to go. Unfortunately they're the important things.

It's probably similar with writing. The obvious things seem to come easily, but the important things, the feel, the control of pacing and the rest of it, can slip away very quickly if you aren't careful. With the novel I'm doing rewrites on at the moment, the hardest thing is getting the timing right on the moments of comedy that litter the thing without sacrificing anything that contributes to the story. Even when you're trying to make people laugh, that comes first.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Florence Green feels that what her small town could really use is a bookshop, so she opens one. The decision isn't popular, however, because she chooses the house that local bigwigs have earmarked as a possible Arts Centre. The book maps the course of the bookshop's brief life, taking in a host of minor stories in the process, from whether Florence's young assistant will pass her 11+ exam to whether anything will ever be done about the rapper (poltergeist) in the shop's cellars.

The word that springs to mind for this book is charming. It has a quiet, almost quaint beauty to it, and Fitzgerald's elegant prose carries the piece along. It's short, at only 123 pages, and doesn't set out to do huge things, but it captures the petty rivalries and self importance of village lives perfectly.

Bizarrely, it reminds me a little of Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea, though with a very different prose style. That book takes the central dreams of people's lives and shows them worn down inevitably by age and weakness despite the nobility of any stand. Fitzgerald seems to deal with similar sorts of issues here, taking people's simple dreams, from Mrs Green's desire to open a bookshop, to her neighbour's desire to simply live happily with his girlfriend Kattie, and letting them ebb away. The difference is that where Hemmingway shows us powerless against nature, Fitzgerald chooses far more human mechanisms of dissolution, from relentless social pressure, to the small intrigues that almost everyone seems to indulge in, to the patronising 'practicalities' put in the way.

I wasn't expecting this to be nearly as powerful as it was, but the whole works surprisingly well, even though it initially seems like a book in which nothing is destined to occur. It's certainly worth reading.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Registration Build Up

Earlier I completed a draft of the conclusion to the PhD, which means I've now got versions of all of it. It's just a question of rewrites and alterations from now. I've also begun the process of re-registering for next year (otherwise known as ten days from now) but I've got to settle old debts first. The university thinks I owe it the grand total of 60p for something. I'm not entirely sure what, but since I won't be allowed to register when I owe them money, I'll be along to the finance office with a bag full of 1p coins first thing Monday.

I'm also thinking of volunteering to help out with the work needed for a conference coming up. It doesn't sound like a great deal of work, and I suppose it will look reasonably good that I'm involved with the research community. Much better than driving hundreds of miles to get away from them, which is what happened when I was due to give a paper at one in December.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


  • I received my copy of the first issue of Inside Out Magazine today and it looks great. Of course, everyone else there is putting together poetry and short stories while I was just filling in on that on, knocking out copy for a less artistic section. Even so, it's a good thing to have been part of.
  • I keep forgetting to do revision on the new novel. I'm too easily distracted by other things.
  • Such as the short story I finished last night. I'm writing slightly longer short stories than I used to, but since I can't think of a way of making them shorter without losing something that feels right, I'm sure they're the length they need to be.
  • I'm still working on the conclusion to the PhD, a little bit at a time.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Two Poems

My poems 'On My Feet' and 'Lived In' have gone up in the summer edition of Adagio Verse Quarterly. It can be found here: http://www.geocities.com/adagioversequarterly/p6.html

Monday, 15 September 2008

Four Runs Found

Two or three weeks back, some cricket scorer with too much time on his hands 'found' the missing four runs that would take the late Sir Donald Bradman's batting average from 99.96 to an even 100.

I mention this because in almost no other field is it quite so easy to work out who the greatest practictioner of it ever is. The Don's nearest rival over a reasonable number of games is fellow Australian Mike Hussey, whose average is 70 odd and falling. Of those with completed careers, the phenomenal George Headly has an average somewhere in the 60s, while most of the other greats are stuck somewhere in the 50s. Bradman was, in short, two-thirds again as good as the next best ever, and twice as good as the 'average' great player.

You don't get this certainty in most other sports, and you definitely don't get it in writing. What would you do? Tot up total book sales? That only shows popularity. Ultimately, all you're left with is a personal judgement of quality, and that is so variable that it means very little. If I want to be silly and claim that Roald Dahl was the greatest writer ever, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. Not that I want to. Although the BFG was rather good...

But this leads to the obvious question: how do you know if what you're producing is any good? There's no absolute way of checking, so you're left with your own opinion (which in my case swings between 'It's a work of genius!' and 'It's the worst thing anyone's ever written!' often over the course of about five minutes) The opinions of assorted friends and relatives (who often try to be kind) or, if you're lucky and brave enough, the opinions of your writing group. Ultimately though, there's no way of knowing for sure, so you might as well just post it out and see.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

A Picture of Bill

Bill's normally too lazy to play, until you bring curtains into the equation. Then, he'll happily chase after and pounce on our other cat, Joe. Well, until he gets bored and goes to sleep, leaving Joe waiting behind the curtains.

Friday, 12 September 2008


  • I've finally started reworking the novel, though I didn't get much done today.
  • I've been playing around with a short story idea after coming up with what I thought was a nice title, only to realise I didn't have anything else.
  • I've put in a request for some credit exemptions at the university based on my previous post graduate training scheme stuff. In a couple of weeks, I should find out whether I'll need to take any modules to make up credits or not.
  • I spent most of the morning frantically backing things up after suddenly realising I hadn't done it for ages. If the computer gremlins got to the clapped out thing I work on, I'd lose hundreds of thousands of words of work. It took a while, because the computer in question is sufficiently old fashioned to only take floppy disks. Its main advantage is that, because it has no modem, nasty viruses aren't likely to get in.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Other thing that Happened Today

Understandably enough, the majority of people's focus today is going to be on the attack on the twin-towers back in 2001. I don't think I can do that subject justice, so I'm not going to try. Instead, I'm going to drift into my role of medieval historian for a moment and point out the other important event 11th September is the anniversary of: the death in 1087 of William the Conqueror.

It probably seems like an insignificant thing, but without this man's life, things would almost certainly be rather different. The words on this page definitely would be, because without the invasion of an Old French speaking nobility, English would have been influenced far less by that language. Even little words like pork and beef wouldn't be part of it, deriving as they do from the French.

There also wouldn't have been the continuing connection to Normandy until approximately the Third Crusade (when Philip II of France pulled a sickie so he could run back and steal it) resulting in an important Northern European force in the form of the Angevin Empire. Without that, maybe European politics for the next few hundred years (the consequences of which still pop up now and again) would have been very different indeed.

And then there are all the deaths.

Without William, there probably wouldn't have been the mass displacement and killing known popularly now as the 'harrowing of the north'. I forget the exact figures involved, and I wouldn't like to risk being wrong when we're dealing with what I suspect are tens of thousands, but I don't need them anyway. I just need you to imagine for a moment an almost total scorched earth policy over much of the north (and particularly the north east) of England. My home town of Beverley was lucky, because, according to John Kettel, writing a couple of hundred years later, William was impressed by what he heard of St John of Beverley. Most places weren't so lucky. Even taking into account some of the problems with the term waste in Domesday Book, large swathes of countryside were still trying to recover almost twenty years later.

And then there's that book. No one knows for sure what he wanted it for, with arguments usually ranging between taxation and a record of 'feudal' landholding. It was just a snapshot, and it wasn't even finished in his lifetime, but the level of organisation it took was impressive.

So there we have it, at least in as much as I can be bothered. William I: typically ruthless medieval monarch, Conqueror of England, cause of a lot of rivalry between England and France in the long run, and probably also one of the first sad, anorak wearing stattos. Not to mention the only King of England the average school child has heard of these days.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Something to shake a stick at

There's the final of the BBC's show Maestro on at the moment, and I can't watch it because the sight of a bunch of 'celebrities' trying to conduct the BBC concert orchestra just makes me laugh too much.

It's part of a wider problem I have with the idea of conductors. These celebrities are going up there, conducting with varying degrees of vigour and skill, and it isn't making one iota of difference to the sound being produced by the orchestra. Given that, it seems monstrously unfair that conductors should gain the accolades they do for something that could be taken by the uninitiated as some bizarre form of interpretative dance.

Maybe it's just that I'm used to forms of music where the groups are never large enough, or indeed drummerless enough, to require a baton twirler. I've only worked with a conductor once, and that's when my school choir was one of half a dozen or so taking part in an episode of Songs of Praise. I don't remember them being much use then either.

I'm sure they do something important, but surely not so important that they should get more attention than the musicians. After all, everyone who plays in a renowned orchestra like the BBC concert will possess practically virtuoso level skills on their instrument, achieved through years of practise. It annoys me that someone whose main function could be replaced by a metronome is more important than that. (yes I'm sure they do more. I'm just not sure what.)

It's just that, with jazz (the only other genre that uses bands that large I can think of off the top of my head) orchestras often get on perfectly well with a leader who is also playing. Presumably they're too busy to wave a stick as well, so it must be possible for an orchestra to do perfectly well without. Not that I'm ever likely to find out. Almost everything I've ever done musically has been geared towards having as few musicians as possible. Mostly, that means shoving everything on one guitar, or maybe having two or three instruments at most. All you need there is for everyone to be paying some kind of attention.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Estella's Up

This month's edition of Estella's Revenge is up, featuring my article '10 ways of starting a literary argument.'

Sunday, 7 September 2008


  • Today is apparently Australia's endangered species day, which has no particular connection to me beyond a certain interest in the thylacine, which has been extinct since 1936
  • I'm trying to get my brain back into short story gear. After spending so long writing the novel, it's hard to suddenly switch back to things that are dealt with in a few thousand words. The one idea I have feels like the sort of thing that would need a certain amount of space to breathe.
  • To that end, I'm trying to come up with a stock of basic ideas by asking myself what stories I wish had been written. Maybe something will catch my attention.
  • I'm getting stuck into a draft for my PhD's conclusion. It's probably the most fun part, since I've already gone through all the facts and detail. It means I don't have to stop every couple of lines to check references. I can just write for once. That's the part of the PhD that's hardest, and what sets it aside from writing fiction, or even a lot of non-fiction. You think you're just going to write for the best part of a hundred thousand words, but you don't really build momentum. It's always write...pause...check fact...write...

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Eric Roche

On a slightly more sombre note, today marks the anniversary of the death of acoustic guitar... there's no other word for it but genius, Eric Roche.

For those who don't know, and that remains far too great a number, Eric Roche was one of the most complete acoustic guitarists of his lifetime, managing delicate celtic fingerpicking, perfectly controlled jazz, and all out percussive acoustic workouts with equal aplomb. He could switch from the sort of things associated with Pierre Bensusan or Adrian Legg to blasting through the sort of pieces more associated with Michael Hedges or Preston Reed without a blink. Along with some truly beautiful original pieces, he did a particularly inventive line in covers, with instrumental versions of everything from Van Halen's Jump to Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground, to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. And if the rock numbers in there make you think 'oh no... cheesy acoustic versions' don't. Thanks to his mix of percussive and arranging skills, the covers have all the punch and more of the originals. I'm a Van Halen fan, and I still prefer Roche's version.

Almost more important, though, is what he achieved as an educator at the ACM and as a writer for Guitar Techniques Magazine. Guitarists such as Austrian acoustic virtuoso Thomas Leeb studied under him, and so did the multi-something selling singer songwriter Newton Faulkner. On a personal level, his columns in Guitar Techniques are one of the main reasons I got back into playing the acoustic guitar after a long spell playing only electric. One of my regrets as a guitarist is that he did a workshop in my home town, and I forgot about it.

For anyone who wants to know more, check out the website mantained by his family.


Nothing Doing

I've spent the day doing nothing, or as near as makes no difference. I re-read quite a bit of Jim Butcher's Small Favour but wrote nothing. No poetry, no re-writes, no short stories, no work on the PhD, nothing. The idea was that, since I was still exhausted after finishing the novel, I'd just re-charge. It's apparently quite common to just crash a bit, and I've experienced it before after finishing other time consuming projects, but I'm not sure I'll remain inactive long. It was far too boring.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Inside Out

Issue 1 of the magazine Inside Out, featuring my article 'healing narratives' has finally gone to print and is available from their website http://www.myinsideout.co.uk

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Clegg Effect

A question to which I'll tell you the answer in a minute if you don't know: Who is Nick Clegg?

Actually, I'll make it easier: Who is David Cameron? Gordon Brown?

The answers are that Nick Clegg is the leader of the UK's Liberal Democrat party, while David Cameron is the current leader of the Conservative party (and likely to be next prime minister) and Gordon Brown is the current prime minister.

Why is this relevant? Well, as interesting as the upcoming US elections are, for the past few weeks in the UK we've been getting them right at the top of the news, ahead even of our own political stories. That annoys me, since it implies that the showiness of an election over which we have no say is winning out over elements of politics central to our wellbeing.

It also annoys me a little that the UK's media in general pay an awful lot of attention to US politics. The names of obscure members of the US government are common questions on TV quiz shows, the detail of the political discussions show up not just on our news but on our discussion programmes, and even our topical comedy shows give us a steady diet of US politics.

On a couple of levels I can understand it. The USA is currently the world's dominant power, so those politics affect us. Equally, the fact that those politics are conducted in English (or something vaguely approximating it in the case of the current president) makes them nice and accessible. Also there's the rather nonsensical idea of a 'special relationship' between Britain and the US, which seems to largely ignore the way countries work, but there you go.

Wouldn't it be useful though to occasionally hear about our own politicians? Just the other night, news of Palin's speach at the Republican whotsit made it onto British domestic news ahead of the story about Alex Salmond (the Scottish First Minister) opening the Scottish parliament for the session and setting out his legislative plans for the year. Wouldn't it also be nice if occasionally we also heard something about the politics of all those other countries that affect us in the UK. You know, the various members of the EU, Russia, China, the massive emerging economy of India...

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


  • I've been reading Robert Asprin's Dragons High, and so far I'm not impressed. It seems the man forgot how to write well while he was busy collaborating. This needs a serious edit.
  • A faint possibility that I might be lining up a bit of work in the history department. Apparently, someone needs a grad student to assist with the archive work, blog entry collation and interview transcription for their current project.
  • I'm back writing poetry. I'm thinking of entering the Telegraph's poetry competition. 180 words or less on relationships. I can't remember the url, so anyone else who's interested, just go through www.Telegraph.co.uk
  • I'm also trying to collect together enough good work for a competition for full length collections. 60-65 pages on any subject. Again, I've forgotten the details, but I'll put them up when I remember. I was listening to Steve Morse's Split Decision while I picked things out, so I've largely alternated between the deathly serious and the lighter stuff.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Fishing for Worlds

My slightly odd short story 'Fishing for Worlds' has just gone up in issue 4 of Semaphore Magazine (http://www.freewebs.com/semaphoremagazine/currentissue.htm) if you should happen to check it out, please do their reader survey, since it apparently helps to determine the contents of their anthology.