Thursday, 30 April 2009

Poetry Monthly

My poem 'Done With Mirrors' has gone up in Poetry Monthly here Page 28, if you should have the sudden urge to look at it. It's been ages since I wrote any poetry.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


A meme nicked from Dave King over at Pics and Poems, on the basis that too much wading through hagiography has turned my brain to mush.

My Current Obsession: I suppose making my attempts at music more complete probably counts. I've been playing around a lot with a lot of solo guitar stuff, after the fashion of Steve Vai's Die to Live. Generally, though, I'm trying to obsess a little less at the moment.

Clothing I wear most often: Jeans, probably. Endless, identical pairs of jeans. You know that bit in the generally horrible film Inspector Gadget, where there are dozens of trenchcoats lined up in Gadget's wardrobe? It's a bit like that.

What's for dinner? You know, I have no idea. It depends what's in the fridge. Though we do seem to be making a lot of Thai Green Curry at the moment.

Favourite Vacation Spot: You're kidding, right? I don't get time off. Or rather, I get the completely weird mess of work that comes with being a research student.

I am reading: The Inimitable Jeeves (PG Woodhouse) about a dozen books on Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys, mostly on the basis that I have an essay to finish on them. Walter Daniel's Life of Ailred, anyone?

Four words to describe myself: Can't stick to word-

Guilty pleasures: If I feel guilty about them, should I shout them out? Oh all right. Jazz Fusion. And I'll occasionally read chick-lit if I'm bored enough. This is all your fault, you know, blogging people.

First spring cleaning thing: The contents of my many pockets

I look forward to: Someday putting forward a PhD draft that won't come back covered in corrections.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

What we're good at

The cricket season started for me yesterday (one run, a dropped catch and no bowling, if you're interested) Mostly because I decided not to fence a competition in order to be available for the cricket, it raised for me the difference between the things we really love doing, and the things that we happen to be good at.

A lot of the time, these two things are quite easy to confuse. After all, we tend to enjoy doing well at things. More to the point, when people really enjoy something, whether it's writing, a particular job, or flunging past sabreurs at high speed, they tend to put in so much time and effort naturally that they get rather good at it. Take Steve Vai, for example, whose approach to the guitar as a youth seems to have consisted of playing all day, every day, because he didn't want to do anything else.

But sometimes, with the things we're merely good at, it's the feeling of success that we're enjoying, not the activity in question. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's important to realise that the two things are seperate. As an example, take the Durham and England fast bowler Steve Harmison. He was, briefly, the number one bowler in world cricket. Even so, it's been widely publicised that, given the talent to do so, he'd much rather be playing football for his beloved Newcastle United.

This is the point where the divergence becomes important: when what you really love doing is not the thing that you happen to be really good at. Should you be doing the thing that you enjoy that you aren't much good at, or the thing that you're good at that you don't enjoy so much? To a great extent, it becomes a question of degree. It's never likely to be as clearly defined as "I'm a world-beater in this but I hate it", though "I really love this but I'm utterly hopeless" shows up rather more often. Instead, it's likely to be a question of being above/below average at two things, one of which you really love, but the other of which you find quite fun too, after a fashion.

I suppose it's the sort of thing that you can see in the scenario of a well paid job that you sort of enjoy set against the thing you've always dreamed of doing, but which might go horribly wrong. What's the answer? Typically enough, I don't know. My own experiences with this interest v ability thing see me occasionally going for the thing I really love (though I'm thinking of changing my mind on that on the cricket v fencing front), occasionally going for the thing I'm good at (which is how I ended up doing this PhD), and occasionally trying to do everything all at once, with fairly chaotic results.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A pause

I'm still avoiding writing anything seriously for the moment, though there is one issue with it that I've found: what exactly do you do when you aren't writing?

On the one hand, it seems to be freeing up my concentration for the "important" things, but on the other, it has also left me with some slight gaps to fill. Short of actually, I don't know... getting a social life or something, there's a lot of time needs filling up.

Ok, so maybe I'm not being that serious. But I suspect that with the majority of people who write, it is one of their main hobbies, even if it should happen to turn into slightly more than that. Stop, and other things have to fill the space. In my case, it translates into quite a lot of musical practise, but I'm sure it must take different people in different ways.

Of course, I only said I was writing a little less (as in not novel writing, essentially) so I haven't stopped completely. I'm still producing the odd story or poem as the mood takes me. Unfortunately, they seem to be quite strange moods, so I'm not sure if I'll be able to do anything with them, but then again, who cares?

Friday, 17 April 2009


  • I'll be writing slightly less for the next month or two, or at least trying to avoid thinking the words "you know, I've got a great idea for the next novel" I think even I've got to admit that there are times you can only focus on one thing, and right now that thing needs to be the PhD. See, I can prioritise as well as make up random silly things.
  • The IPL will be starting shortly, and I'll be relegated to following it online, unless they have it on in the student union bar as they did last year. If so, I might have to become the sort of student who spends most of the day in the bar.
  • One thing I'd forgotten about writing essays; just how little you end up knowing about the topic as a whole when compared to spending a couple of years learning everything about it. Except that now I know how little I know, so having to write something coherent anyway makes me feel all the more like I'm making it up as I go.
  • You know, I've got this... no. No, no, no, no! Bad Stu.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Well, this has come as something of a shock, but I looked at the old version of the novel and I suddenly saw a way to make it work. Combined with a couple of days of writing an awful lot, I appear to have acquired a complete draft. It's a little shorter than I'd normally like, so maybe I'll need to add to it on the next pass, but other than that it's complete.

On a more general front, the whole episode raises some questions about me and the abandonment of novels. I have something of a history with it (weirdly enough often around the 28 000 word mark), so naturally I'm intrigued as to why it happens. General mental state is one thing. Caught in a sufficiently bad mood, the same piece that looks fixable can look awful. Boredom may be another, that point where the initial rush of excitement fades. At that point, something needs to be quite powerful to make you want to keep going. Going off too quickly can also lead to it, not just because problems that aren't dealt with early can really mess up the book, but also because you haven't decided yet whether the idea is a good enough one to commit to for the next few months.

With this one, it was probably a result of the nagging feeling that it wasn't good enough, combined with too strict a plan and structure. It took some of the fun out of writing, which meant things slowed down. When I went back to it and just did things the way that felt fun, it worked. I'm just glad that I kept this version around instead of deleting it.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Reading when Writing?

Have you ever heard the suggestion that very occasionally crops up "try not to read anything while you're writing, because the influence of it will affect your writing"? It's nonsense of course, at least on the level it seems to be aimed at. The idea that you could write something entirely free from influence just doesn't work, given that you've spent a whole lifetime being influenced, not just by books, but by other forms of media, people in general, and so on.

There are a couple of weird ways in which it has a point though. Firstly, whenever I've just read the work of a favourite author, my own writing will tend to edge just a smidgeon more in their direction. Not enough to help, usually, but enough to affect the emphasis of things and the rhythm of the writing.

Secondly, there is a tendency for time spent reading to take away from time spent writing, at least with me. Now, reading is one of my favourite things, but it does seem to occupy the same sort of 'headspace' used by writing. If I read until I'm tired of it, then writing won't immediately occur to me as an alternative. Sometimes, cutting back on one can help the other.

Finally, there's what I like to think of as the Jeff Beck factor. I should explain. There are several guitarists who have said in interviews that, after they heard Jeff Beck play for the first time (you'd think it would be Hendrix, but usually it's not) they then didn't feel 'worthy' to play their instrument for days or weeks after. Sometimes, if you read a really good book in the same genre, there's a part of you that just goes "I'll never be able to make mine that good", and that can set you back. Or worse, make you stall completely.

Friday, 10 April 2009


  • I'm a little over the 20000 word mark again with the novel, and it seems to be going pretty well. Both Bob the Vampire and the line about zombie sofas made it intact, along with something about why fairy creatures wouldn't really understand remote controls, not to mention the perils of decorating something that doesn't conform to normal laws of physics.
  • The second team didn't get relegated after all, so instead of nice cheap wickets, I might actually get a contest.
  • I've been applying for an assortment of jobs away from the research community. I might put in one or two attempts there, but at the moment I can't see history as my main focus for the years to come. Of course, I might still be entirely wrong about that, but I doubt it.
  • I tried remembering the various things I've read so far this year, but couldn't do it. Clearly, some of them weren't that memorable.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

A random T20 rant

Apparently Andrew Strauss won't be in England's team for Cricket's 20-20 World Cup later in the year, having been left out of the thirty man preliminary squad for the event. This is interesting principally in that he is England's captain, so what does this say about the game as a whole?

One thing it says is just how 20-20 cricket is changing the shape of the game as a whole, increasingly requiring attacking, power-hitting players. Exactly how much this is the case is up for debate, since even quite defensive players can score at high speed with enough skill. Perhaps what it says instead is that people's perceptions of a player can have an immense effect on their careers. It is not just enough to be good, as Strauss undoubtedly is, or capable of attacking, as Strauss has shown in the recent one-day series against the West-Indies. Instead they must 'show' that they can do these things by hitting the big boundaries.

Another thing Strauss' exclusion suggests is that 20-20 is still seen as a separate form of the game in England. In the sense that it is a different format with its own tactical considerations, perhaps that is true, but the idea of specialist players of this one format strikes me as a little odd. Can they suddenly hit a ball where they couldn't before? Worse than that, Strauss' exclusion, while possibly intended as a message to strengthen the England side, in fact sends the message that the England and Wales Cricket Board is taking the tournament so 'seriously' that they can't even be bothered to make the proper captain play. It's ludicrous. The two up and coming teams in the Test rankings, South Africa and India, are exactly the two countries that have come to put the most into this most abreviated form of the game.

The weirdest thing about the whole situation is that Strauss apparently had an important role to play in his own deselection. Now, it might show maturity to be able to say 'no, I'm not actually good enough to do this', or it might be that he was genuinely in need of a rest, but what does it say about how seriously Andrew Strauss is taking 20-20 cricket? More to the point, with the likes of Kent's Robert Key being suggested as possible replacements from outside the existing team structure, how does he think this is going to contribute to a stable team environment?

Estella's Up

This month's edition of Estella's Revenge has gone up here with my article 'I like...'

Saturday, 4 April 2009


  • My brother did something even stranger at the cricket AGM than I anticipated, and put himself forward for second team captain. I don't know whether this has improved my chances of a place, or means I need to spend some serious time bowling at him. I hadn't realised that the seconds had actually been relegated at the end of last year, so this could potentially mean some cheap wickets coming up.
  • Occasionally you just get a feeling that something is going well. With the current set of re-writes on the novel, I'm back in the rhythm of it, actually wanting to write, where before I had to push myself a little. Given that I have occasionally felt really positive about things only to see them crash, I'm still being a little careful, but I think this is the version that will stick.
  • Yet more re-writes on the PhD. Also, I have an essay due in the start of next month, so I should really get on with it, starting with making a definite choice about the title. One of the questions is right in my area (a comparison of two medieval monasteries), but isn't actually much of a question to answer. Another perhaps leaves more scope for argument, but I'm less familiar with the primary source material beyond the AS Chronicle.
  • One of my poems, 'Driving at Night' has come out in Decanto magazine.
  • I've started a re-read of Jasper Fforde's The Forth Bear. He does come up with some amazingly surreal ideas, but I suspect the re-read will be a test of how well executed they are.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sport Funding

Funding for Olympic sport, rather like arts funding, is often a contentious issue. While people will generally want their country to do well in international competition, they aren't always happy that millions of pounds are spent on the athletes, coaches, facilities and so on that are generally needed to compete at the elite level.

Take my own preferred sport of fencing, for example. The British Olympic Association has announced that, as it has only been able to raise £10million of a projected £50million from private businesses towards the olympics, funding for those sports deemed least likely to produce medals has been cut severely for this olympic cycle. Both fencing and paraolympic fencing have been severely hit. The number of elite athletes funded has been cut by about a third, and there is now no provision at all for elite men's epee.

Why is this? Now, I don't really know enough about the women's game to comment (I barely bother following the men's, and that's mostly so that I have some idea of where I'm up to) but the short answer seems to be that they have looked at current performers and where they are placing. Richard Kruse (foil) and Alex O'Connell (sabre) have done sufficiently well in recent years to save their weapons from the scrapheap, but no one is winning anything internationally at men's epee. It seems logical, doesn't it, that we should concentrate our funding where it will do most good?

Except... Firstly, Richard Kruse strikes me as being on the downslope of a mediocre career, and O' Connell's best days are probably also behind him. Using current senior performances as a predictor of success in four years is therefore probably not that good an idea. Secondly, without some sort of funding, none of our fencers will win internationally. The difference in standard between top domestic and international competitions may be small enough in France, the USA or Hungary for it not to make a difference, but here the general standard is quite low.

Thirdly, I'd be interested in seeing how they decide who is 'elite' enough to get funding. As a friend of mine pointed out, the way the british ranking system works, Kruse could maintain his position as Britain's premier foilist almost indefinitely by attending a few international competitions and coming in the last 64 or so. The points multipliers for such high level competitions could place him at the top of the rankings by a distance without him ever having to fence domestically. As the top of the rankings, he would then be selected for international matches... and so on. Good on him for getting to that point, but now he's there, and getting funded, there must be a temptation to stamp on the fingers on anyone better coming up.

Bizarrely though, having whinged about the money, I'm going to suggest that it isn't what we need. I mean, yes, money to pay for the hideously expensive safety equipment is always helpful, and good coaches are nice, but the main reason this country doesn't make an impact at the top level (and thus doesn't get funding) is that not enough kids are attracted to the sport for talent to arise. Why? My theory is that what we're really being starved of is media coverage. Even at the Olympics, the BBC showed about ten minutes of our fencing, all featuring Richard Kruse, with no sign of either O' Connell or our women. People tend to play sport because they are surrounded by it, either in person or in the media. Now, people aren't going to be sword-fighting up the high street, so really the latter option is the only one that matters. Give us that over funding any day.