Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Please, Vladimir!

In case you were wondering – and I doubt if you were - I’ve fallen a little further behind with the challenge. I accept that this is not very encouraging news to report, but I have reasonable excuses, I assure you. However, my concern about my inadequacies in keeping up (and yours too, gentle reader), should mean nothing. For no, of more concern to all of us at this time should be the impending collapse of the world order. In short, it’s the end of the world.

Do you remember the optimism that we all felt when the Berlin Wall came down and when almost the whole of the Eastern Bloc in Europe emerged from behind its curtain, blinking into the sunshine, to join the rest of us as we skipped along in our happy democratic freedoms? How simple everything seemed then, and how refreshing. The Soviet Union was no more, and the Russians - who for years had been blamed for everything that went wrong in our lives, from the weather to the decline of the butterfly and even to the reducing size of Mars Bars - were now our new best friends. Hurrah! A new era of world peace had dawned.

Leningrad became romantic St Petersburg once more. Our old view of the USSR where there was never anything in the shops, where everyone wore drab grey clothes, where the only car you could drive was a Lada and where everyone was unhappy, was replaced by a glittering confetti of newly independent countries, including Russia. The Russian Federation, as it became, seemed to be restored to its former status as a vibrant and exotic land of delicious mystery; a land of golden domes, sleigh-rides on the ice, and fur hats. It was all rather jolly, wasn’t it?

Were we being deluded, naïve, or were we just being plain crazy? Boris Yeltsin - as the first President of this new, exciting and freshly free-market country - emerged as an avuncular, slightly bumbling, lovely old bear of a man. Someone from whom we had nothing to fear. But poor old Boris soon fell from grace and his attempts to pull Russia into the twentieth century soon got completely out of hand with widespread corruption, inflation and economic collapse. His popularity fell and although he struggled hard to hold things together, he finally left office with a public approval rating of only 2%.

Waiting in the wings, like the evil fairy at Sleeping Beauty’s christening party, was an up-and-coming young politician who, only a few months before, had been appointed almost from nowhere as Russia’s Prime Minister. Yes, dear reader, the man to succeed our bumbling bear as President of the Russian Federation was none other than the shirtless pin-up we all know as Vladimir Putin. That was December 31st 1999 and almost fourteen years later, Mr Putin has never been far away from the seat of power. In a convenient job-swap with his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, our dashing Vladimir managed to swerve around the Constitution which bars a president from holding a 3rd consecutive term, only to swap back again in 2012. In the eyes of the world, however, it was always Putin who was pulling Medvedev’s strings throughout these apparent ‘wilderness years’ and we can be confident that his power and authority have never waned.

None of this would matter, of course, if the President had simply stuck to the new order, and hadn’t decided to revive some out-dated imperialist ambitions for his once happy land. The West, which considers itself to be the arbiters of democratic reasonableness of course, was keen to embrace Russia into the New Age of Freedom. We wanted the handsome and macho Mr Putin to come to our party – we like having new friends who will dance with us, drunk, into the oblivion of the night. But Vladimir had other ideas, and now seems hell-bent on reforming the old USSR in his own image. Crimea was just the start, and he only succeeded there by appealing to the jingoist emotions of its inhabitants, but he plans to spread his net wider and seemingly will not rest until he has restored the Empire to its former glory.

I despair. Like most of us, I had fondly imagined that war-mongering in Europe was a thing of the past. It seems that I was wrong. The current situation threatens to escalate into an outright conflict of ideologies, something that could soon become very dangerous for us all. Why, Mr Putin, could you not exercise some restraint and leave things well alone? Why risk more misery and bloodshed than we need? Isn’t there enough of that elsewhere in the world? Why not just come to our party instead? We could be friends. If you did that, we could all have a jolly good time and we could all happily dance together until dawn. Please come – and bring a bottle. Vodka, of course.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

One Hundred 'K'

In June I signed up for a writing challenge known as ‘100k Words in 100 Days’. It began on 1st July and the challenge is (guess what?) to write 100,000 words in 100 days. Seems easy, on the face of it – just 1,000 words a day. What could be simpler?

The rules are few, and nobody doing the challenge even has to provide any evidence that they are actually writing, but there doesn’t seem much point in cheating or lying about it because, as the adage so often repeated to us in our school days says: “If you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.” The main rule is that the words that count towards the total have to be new words, which I suppose is obvious. However, they can be anything one likes (within reason). Blogs count towards the total – so perhaps I should try to make this blog as long as possible (but I won’t, for fear of sending you to sleep, dear reader), as does fiction, poetry, non-fiction writing, articles and reports etc. Tweets and Facebook postings definitely do not count, nor do letters or emails.

I am working on a novel that I started ten years ago and then abandoned after about 18,000 words. I had enough of the novel at the time – and since – to use it for submissions to agents. There was certainly enough for the obligatory first three chapters and synopsis and as such, I sent it off to various parties, usually re-hashed and re-edited every time, depending on my mood. It was rejected every time, over and over again. A good friend of mine, and a successful novelist herself, suggested that I perhaps wasn’t fully ‘in love’ with the novel and that therefore it wasn’t a work that I cared enough about to finish. She suggested that I had lost interest in it and that it wasn’t really what I wanted to write and that I needed to find an alternative ‘voice’ with a totally different piece of work. She was probably correct, but because I needed to write something – anything – for this challenge, I decided to pick that novel up again. If nothing else, just the discipline of getting the words down is a great motivation and if the novel turns out to be no good (which might still be the case, I regret to say) then at least I’ll have been writing for one hundred days, which is something I haven’t done for years. And the surprise for me has been to discover that I do care for the novel after all. I am quite excited about the way it has developed - I have experienced that delicious moment that all writers encounter when we suddenly realise that our characters are writing their own story. I think this novel might work after all.

Sadly, I have already fallen behind on the target. Today is Day 50, so half way through, but by the end of today I expect my total to be only about 43,000. So I have some catching up to do. The shortfall arose when I went on holiday at the end of July. I foolishly thought that I’d carry on while I was away - after all, it seemed perfectly reasonable that I could bash out 1,000 per day whilst lounging on the beach. Not so. I hardly opened my laptop at all while I was away – the beach was too relaxing, the sightseeing too urgent, and the ‘fruits de mer’ too tempting. But hey, I can catch up can’t I? If I exceed the 1,000 word target by just 35% for the next twenty days, I will do it. Then it’s a simple coast for the remaining thirty days and hey presto, I will have done it.

Procrastination is the enemy! No distractions will be tolerated. Except that I’ve just realised that it’s absolutely imperative that I immediately need to make a sherry trifle. Oh, and doesn’t that meat in the fridge need a marinade? And that pile of ironing, doesn’t that require some attention? This feels a bit like Sisyphus's challenge. As soon as I start getting ahead, I fall behind again. Oh dear.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Starting over...

So why have I resumed my blogging after a silence of over three years? There are several reasons for this – quite complicated and fairly personal reasons, to be honest, but I can attempt an explanation. My life has become somewhat unfulfilling in recent times – oh, I know all about the fact that one shouldn’t complain about such matters, or think negative thoughts etc., but when examining the reasons for the unfulfillment, it is necessary to identify the causes first before one can do anything about them.

So, another round of self-improvement is called for. Identifying that life had become a tedious routine of cleaning, cooking, administrating, drinking and sex, I decided to set about the re-introduction of more creative and challenging activities into my days. This is about creating more meaning to the lfe that I lead.

Part of that is to start writing again. I am filled with regret about the opportunities I have passed up previously – for example, four years ago I had a brilliant idea for a play or film to coincide with the centenary of the Sarajevo event that sparked the First WorldWar, but did I do anything about it? Did I ‘eck-as-like, and so the project lay dustily in the bottom drawer until it was too late to do anything about it. I doubt if I will still be around to resurrect the project in time for the bi-centenary, so it’s an idea that will have to be relegated, like many others, to the bin. However, I am bursting with many more ideas and I still have two novels to finish, so it’s absolutely key that I get on with it and take a more disciplined approach to the writing habit.

As well as returning to my fiction, I have also started entering a few writing competitions. I probably won’t win any of them, but this is something which can give a sort of kick-start to the writing process – as they say, there’s nothing like a deadline…..

I’ve also signed up for the the ‘100k in 100 days’ challenge which starts today and runs for, well, 100 days. And the good news, gentle reader, is that the very words you are reading here count towards my 1,000 per day! As any writer will tell you, writing is about being consistent and about being persistent – it is a strange fact of life that nothing is achieved if nothing is done (who knew?) and that only by getting the words down can success come our way.

For now, I won’t bore you any further – this is all a bit of (perhaps unnecessary) explanation about why I have started blogging again. From now on the blogs will contain less information about why a blog appears, and more blog-type stuff that will hopefully entertain and inform. We’ll see.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Hasta la Vista

Another test – this time to see if I can use the methods I used before (which are vaguely returning to me). This time I am
inserting a picture into the text to test whether I can position the picture where I want to. There is no particular reason to have chosen this picture of yellow lilies, it’s just that it is available and is the right size. I do like lilies, however.

So, if this works too, I will be all set to go. There have been many changes since I last blogged, some good and some not so good. I can report to you, gentle reader, that the piano lessons didn’t progress very much further than they had when I posted my last blog in 2011. This too, will be rectified. As with everything, I have a need for re-birth.

Hasta la vista!

Good Grief - I'm Back!

So, after an hiatus of several years, I have decided to return to the world of blogging. I am doing this to try to kick-start (or restart) my creative motivation. As I can no longer remember how to post blogs, and in what format etc., I am using this effort to remind myself of the technicalities. So, without further ado I will post this and if it works, I will prepare something more informative and more creative for posting later.

Watch this space!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Honky-Tonk Blues

So, my advice to you is this: Always keep a stock of pen refills in your house in case of emergencies. And in order to try to maintain this stock, buy your refills on-line instead of venturing out to the shops. You see, I didn’t take this advice, and so a couple of Sundays ago I realized that I urgently needed a refill for my ballpoint pen. There was nothing for it but to take a trip to the refill retailers – a harmless enough exercise you may feel, but in doing so, I had to walk past a pub in which it just so happened that two of my friends were sitting. It seemed rude not to respond to their cheery waves and eager beckoning, so I entered the bar. Some time later, after three or four pints, I emerged to discover that the pen-refill shop had already closed and thus, I came home empty-handed.

The following week, using the next opportunity to get to the shop (I work Monday-Friday in the remote and inhospitable salt mines, with no access to shops at all), I set off again – confident that it was too early for my friends to be in the pub. In fact, I deliberately went in the opposite (circular) direction so as to avoid even having to look through the windows of the bar. I therefore successfully navigated myself to the pen-refill shop without incident, bought the required items, and emerged from the shop to make my way home. But just then, just as I was happily about to head back to my apartment, there, right across the mall opposite the shop doorway from which I had emerged, something caught my eye. It was the piano shop.

Oh, shop of wonders – more tempting even than some bar crammed with my dearest friends. The piano shop, where dreams and schemes of impossible skills are hatched and nurtured. The piano shop, where it isn’t simply pianos that are sold, but the promise of joy upon joys to come. I ventured inside where I was met with a bewildering array of different pianos, both electric and strung (I think that's the right expression). I confessed to the energetic and courteous young salesman that I knew nothing whatsoever about pianos, but he was so patient with me, explaining all the various merits and drawbacks about each type and model, and so very willing to demonstrate the different sounds that each model made with his elegant and nimble playing. I wanted them all!

Not only do I know nothing about pianos, but I can't play one either. I was never taught such a bourgeois effete skill as a child - growing up, as I did, in the backstreets of Naples - and as such have remained totally non-musical all my life. Inside that piano shop - having meant only to go out to buy some refills for my pen - I decided that this non-musical status of mine was about to change. The boy in the shop convinced me that it is never too late to learn to play an instrument - but then of course, he was trying to make a sale. Well, whatever his motives, I was soon hooked on the idea of becoming the next Librace or Barry Manilow and so, after much deliberation over the various models on display, I made my most foolish and extravagant purchase to date.

Foolish and extravagant? Phooey! I now have a fabulously stylish, beautifully-sounding, full-sized 88-key and 3-pedal electric piano sitting resplendent in my livign room. It plays and sounds exactly like the real thing, and with the added bonus that I can play it with earphones on - thereby sparing my neighbours the tortuous horror of listening to me endlessly practising my scales. I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, but I do know that's it's going to be one hell of a lot of fun finding out. I have appointed a fine young fellow as my teacher, and have already made a start. I have already learned to play a very well-known piece of classical composition, worthy indeed of a concert in the Royal Albert Hall: Frère Jacque.

You may laugh, but I have this to say: "Ooh, I am the music man, and I come from down your way!"

Thursday, 31 March 2011

A New Life!

Oh dear - if any of you are still out there, dear listeners, then I'm so sorry that I haven't written for so long. You've probably all deserted me anyway because you must have thought I had died, or that possibly I was in prison. Why wouldn't you?

Well strangely, you would not be too far from the truth there - I am working in a high security psychiatric hospital (the highest security) and my working day is spent incarcerated inside the prison-like conditions. It really is extraordinary - everywhere I move around the hospital I have to unlock and then re-lock a door or gate every few yards. Of course, I carry a great big bunch of keys hanging from my belt (as do all staff) which if nothing else, identifies me as staff, and not a patient. Because as I am sure you will understand, the only difference between me and a madman is that I'm not mad.

But it isn't the 'working-for-a-living' malarkey that has prevented me from updating you on here. Well actually I suppose it is, because working does take up so much of the day - but there have been many, many other distractions to keep me away from here. Too many, in fact, to tell you about them now - I just wanted to pop in to say hello and to say that if you can bear with me, I'll give you a full update in a day or so. And no, I haven't been away creating revolutions in middle-eastern and north African countries; I haven't been performing for Comic Relief; nor have I been caught up in the dreadful events in Japan; nor spending time finishing off the Olympic Stadium; nor attending the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference; nor anything like that.

No, some time ago I gave up smoking. Just like that. I didn't opt for any patches, or gum, or hypnotism, or counselling, or (god forbid) the drugs that my GP offered me - I just quit. And it's been so remarkably easy - not because quitting is an easy thing to do, but because it happened when my mind was in exactly the right place for the job. At any other time I couldn't have done it (which is why I didn't), but on that specific morning when I realized that my pack was empty, and that I really couldn't be bothered to go out to the shops to buy any more, my mindset was completely lined up to the act of quitting.

But why should giving up smoking have kept me busy, you ask? Well, as a reward for my efforts I have bought myself a piano. We all deserve a treat when we have done something special for ourselves, and my treat has been my piano. I have never played the piano in my life before of course, and I had thought that I never would. However, I am beginning to learn to play and it is that which is taking up all my free time at the moment. That and going to the gym (another bonus of being smoke-free). So watch this space, dear reader - very soon I shall be restored to the Adonis-like figure I once was, but this time there will be an added tool in my skillset. This time, I will be banging out my tunes like the most famous pianists of all time.

More on this, and other matters, next time.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Back to the Salt Mines

After a lengthy sabbatical, I will soon be returning to the Salt Mines. Not the same salt mines where I was slaving away at last year, but a different set. Much as I hate the idea, it has become necessary in order to stave off an impending state of penury. It is unfortunate, but not an insurmountable horror and I am sure I will survive the ordeal. I don't mind working for a living - goodness knows, I am far from an idle person and you must know, gentle reader, that I am not a person who would ever shirk from my responsibilities and duties - but it's just the turning up every day that I find so distasteful. It lacks so much imagination - but the people I usually work for think that it's the standard thing to do. Don't get me wrong - I don't resent these people, and I will always turn up at the office with good cheer and steadfastness, but I do resent the assumption that turning up to the office every day is the normal way of things.

So, this is my last week of freedom, but there are still many chores to get through before the week is out. I had intended to spend my last few days in virtuous pursuits - I was planning to go to the gym every day, give myself a daily Italian lesson, clean the flat, work on my novel, and all manner of sensible things that I'm not going to have time for once I am chained to my toil by the evil Gangmaster at the salt mines. However, the week has so far passed in dissipation, catching up with people whom I won't see for ages once I have retired from polite society (which I must do, when work starts again). I was rather drunk last night and so this morning has been a very slow start. Therefore, this entry is very hurriedly written and so I apologise if it fails to entertain, educate or inform.

Tonight I have the AGM for the Nottingham Writers' Studio (of which I am Chairman), and so have all the paperwork for that to prepare. I hope that the event will pass without issue, but I always fear that there could be a revolt from the members about some of the changes I am proposing - we'll see. I don't want a 'Boardroom coup' of any type as it could be embarrassing. I put in a huge amount of (unpaid) work for the Studio, but who knows whether any of it is what the members really want? I am their servant, after all.

I see that I was wrong about Natalie Portman's performance in 'Black Swan'. I had said earlier that I thought that (in the film) she acted her way through the whole gamut of human emotions from A to B. Now she wins an Oscar for her performance. Oh dear - I did get it wrong, didn't I? Then again, perhaps I didn't, and perhaps I'm just the little boy who has spotted that the Emperor is wearing no clothes - after all, the hype around the film was so great that it might be presumed that the Hollywood Machine is no more immune from believing its own whipped up excitement than we are. How gullible we sometimes can be. For example, look at the latest scramble to paint that nice Mr Gadaffi of Libya as an evil tyrant. The journalists would have us believe that he has billions of dollars salted away somewhere - yet we all know that he is a poor, simple man who lives in a tent and probably washes his own underwear. I see that Britney Spears has revealed that he paid her $1 million to sing at his daughter's birthday party. Well, I bet he had to scrimp and save for days to afford that - any father would do the same, surely? Leave the man alone - he doesn't even have a job, apparently. I bet he'd join me in the salt mines, if he could.

And now, I'm going to sneeze, in the Hungarian tradition.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A Typical Sitcom Moment

Some years ago I took a business trip to the island of Guernsey. It's a delightful location, quaint and balmy, with tiny high-hedged roads that twist and turn through the model-like villages and luscious countryside. I was with two colleagues and the purpose of our visit was to try to sell a big IT installation to one of the major businesses in St Peter Port. My role was to support and balance the other two members of our team: The first, a salesman who clearly might not be trusted to tell the truth about the merits of our software; the second, a technical expert who unfortunately could be relied on to tell perhaps too much of the truth. Also, as a senior manager with the company, I was expected to provide some gravitas to the proceedings.

As we gathered at Birmingham airport, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to pack any underwear and so I bought a pack of rather snazzy and fashionable briefs in one of the concourse boutiques. Thinking no more about it, we flew to Guernsey and checked in to our hotel in preparation for the major demonstration the following day. A spot of sightseeing, a pleasant dinner, and some last minute checks on the efficacy of our software demonstration system, and we retired to our rooms for the night.

The following morning we checked out of our hotel and with our luggage and our technical equipment, took a taxi to the Headquarters of our prospective client. In a conference room we were extended all relevant facilities to present our demonstration in the appropriately professional manner. At the appointed time, members of the senior board of management filed in to take their places before us. Our salesman made his well-rehearsed pitch. On the overhead projector our technician effortlessly demonstrated the commercial, practical and strategic benefits of our software, and I led the Q&A session in a soothing, confident and reassuring way. The prospective client's management team were rather dour and reserved at first, but by the end of the two-and-a-half hour session, we felt that we had raised their level of enthusiasm to an extent that led us to feel fairly confident of securing an order. However, such was the size of the investment that we already knew that the decision would not be made that day. So, we ended the session feeling that we had made a suitably professional impression on these people, and that we stood a good chance of securing the deal later.

We thanked our audience for their attention, and they politely thanked us for making the trip and for presenting a convincing case for our application. As there were another five hours until our flight home, we had decided amongst ourselves that we would engage in some further sightseeing of the island once the meeting was over. Not wishing to do this in our business suits, we asked one of the senior managers if there was anywhere we could change into our casual clothes. She said that we could use the same conference room we were already in, and as the management team filed out she said: "You won't be disturbed".

Relieved that the intensity of the meeting was now over, we entered a mood of levity and quickly began to shed our smart business attire in readiness for an afternoon on the town. For some reason I suddenly decided that it was important to show my colleagues how good my recently purchased underwear looked and so, in a moment of madness, I jumped onto the conference table, naked except for my new briefs, and proceeded to imitate a catwalk model, gyrating and cavorting up and down in a provocative manner. At that moment the conference room door opened and in walked the aforesaid senior manager, asking if we would like her to call a taxi for us? She stood horrified at my antics as, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, I froze in mid-gyration with my hips thrust forward to reveal the clinging contours of my new stretch-lycra briefs. Sheepishly, I climbed down from the highly-polished table mumbling that yes, thank you, a taxi would be most appropriate. Still reeling with shock, she retired from the room in silence.

We didn't get the deal.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Welcome to the House of Fun

Every time I write one of these blogs I always vow to write another one very soon. And then life and its chaos gets in the way and before I know it, whole weeks have passed. Things have been extremely difficult in the past couple of weeks - the burden of duties has been crushing to say the least. All the usual stuff has bubbled up onto my already crowded agenda. My weekly and daily schedules resemble a school timetable - but without the free periods. However, I did take a break last weekend to visit some friends in London. They live on a houseboat on the Thames - that great, brooding body of brown water; heaving and swelling as it nudges its way silently through the capital. The boat doesn't float for the whole time - it rises up with the tide for a few hours and then is lowered gently back, to settle once more in the oozing mud like a stranded whale. This is a fascinating process because when settled, the boat lists at a very slight angle, giving one the impression - strangely - of being at sea. For me, this was a wonderful opportunity to relax completely.

There have been other moments of pleasure too, peppered amongst the ever-growing list of mandatory chores. I am a member of a scriptwriting group at the Studio, and our modus is to take two new scripts each month and to critique them, offering comments and (perhaps) advice to the writers. We have been lucky so far because we've only had high quality scripts to work on - there was a fabulously creepy horror film written by award-winning film writer Graham Lester George; a lovely gentle comedy about life in a nudist colony by TV writer Michael Cook; theatre writer Nick Wood's powerful and moving dark drama about teenage self-harm and abuse; and Georgina Lock's outrageously quirky and hilarious new TV sitcom about Osama bin Laden and a group of his hapless cronies. It's been great fun to read the first drafts of these works and, because there's always something useful we can all say about possible improvements to the scripts, it's exciting to think that in some small way we are contributing in the genesis of some great productions to come.

Last night I attended the Studio's quarterly spoken word event where members and guests get a chance to perform their written work in front of an audience. I've performed my work here before on several occasions, but last night I had the pleasure of being a member of the audience. It was a super evening with some very interesting stuff being read. Top of the bill was guest artist Sophie Woolley, fresh from her success in Channel 4's 'Cast Offs'. She performed an astonishing monologue about betrayal and loneliness - all the more remarkable because Sophie is totally deaf which must make it so difficult getting the comic timing right, when she can't hear the audience's reaction. And the reaction was one of hilarity and pure joy. She is brilliant. Irvine Welsh (of 'Trainspotting' fame) described her satirical play 'When to Run' as "a stunning, electrifying show full of imagination and verve". A magical evening.

And now I have my lovely daughter (also called Sophie) and her boyfriend staying with me - so there's heaps more fun to come. Hopefully, dear Reader, it won't be too long before I can recount the details of this on here. I'm ending again with another promise (to myself as well as to you) that my next blog will follow shortly. If it doesn't, you can be assured that it's only because I have again become mired in the drudgery of daily tasks. Let's hope not.