Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

BB's behaviourism lab

PORSCHE PREPARATIONS Once I’d driven it (see What’s a Good Present for a Hooligan?) I was regaled with stories about the difficulties of organising the project. Like the day Mrs BB inexplicably asked me to come out into the garden to see a withered dahlia while Younger Daughter rifled my wallet indoors, taking away my driving licence needed by the hiring company. And did I realise, I was asked, that my wallet lacked a driving licence for over a week? The two of them crowed about my inferior powers of observation.

Younger Daughter who was due to spend a couple of days with us, drove her Seat to the hirer to pick up the Porsche but was disinclined to take her cairn with her for reasons that can be imagined. Which meant that my first task was to drive YD to her home, 45 minutes away, in the Porsche to pick up the cairn. There must be something anti-canine about Porsches because the cairn appeared to suffer a nervous breakdown during the return.

CAKE QUESTION Elder Daughter and Peter stayed with us over my birthday celebrations and I was getting ready to take them to the bus station for their return to Luton when I was suddenly visited by a question I needed to put to Mrs BB.

How long does it take her to create those little cakes/buns that are done in paper cups?

Such questions arrive randomly but it’s no use telling Mrs BB that; she prefers to read between my non-existent lines and look for non-existent reasons. Thus I drove to the bus station (less than two miles), called in at Tesco’s filling station to pick up The Guardian, found they’d run out, drove back across the road to the main store, bought one there and then drove home. And you can guess what lay gently steaming in the kitchen when I opened the door. (Enhanced only with raisins I should add; the picture above came from Google).

“Have one while it’s hot,” said Mrs BB triumphantly. Delicious. But I must insist – however futile my insistence – that self-interest played no part in the question. Such questions crop up in my mind almost daily and the answers are filed away for random use (often in the novel) weeks or months into the future.

The answer is, by the way, twenty-five minutes

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Booze isn't the only option

From eight of us round the coffee table (seen here, ten hours later) eight monologues rose in gathering incoherence. Soon Rusty Nails (scotch and Drambuie) would be served and thereafter madness. I asked: “Doctors. Men or women?” and for ten minutes I had their attention.

OS surprised me: “War correspondents. Women! It’s gotta be that hard one on the BBC.” Meaning Orla Guerin already mentioned on WW. Somebody said: “Priests?” and Peter, PB’s partner, said monosyllabically, “Men.” but he is of RC stock. I considered ski instructors. Mine had been Swiss and in all that mattered – build, seriousness, strength of leg, stubbornness – the sexes were indistinguishable.

OS admitted to reading more books by women than by men but we agreed this was an unfruitful comparison. A host of trades and professions – dentist, soccer player, police-person, politician – slid by gaining raucous single-word judgements which I failed to memorise.

The next morning Mrs BB and I vacated our bed early so that a young couple, who’d occupied couches, could take over. Peter was already up, reading his Kindle in the garden. I acquired pen and paper and returned to my first love, interviewing.

Doctors? Mrs BB: “I’d rather a female doctor was talking about my female bit (sic).” Peter: “It’s different for me. But then I’m not sure I’d want a man messing about with…”

News presenters? Mrs BB: “Female. Because I like Fiona Bruce and I don’t think women get as much cherishing.”

Taxi drivers? Peter: “I was going to say men but I know a woman (driver). She’s scary and she’d kill me if I said men.”

Prime minister? Mrs BB: “Oh male! The only female was an absolute disaster.”

A rowdy party? Call in BB to damp things down

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

What's a good present for a hooligan?

In future I need to take more care about casual remarks. Twice while holidaying in France this year I mumbled to myself “I’d like to try out a Porsche some day.” unaware I’d been overheard. Yesterday I opened my front door to find a 22-year-old Porsche Carrera at my beck and call for the day. Thanks to Mrs BB, OS and PB. Yet my birthday is still two days away.

Thereby hangs a tale. Insurance companies take a dim view of old fools in Porsches and the cut-off age is 76; at present I’m 75. OS pointed out that the Carrera is as old as granddaughter Bella but certain cars do age graciously. Old men become incontinent, old Carreras become classics.

Parts of the Carrera are woefully antique. The dashboard is utterly non-ergonomic, starting the engine requires the brief but irritating insertion of a chip, the convertible body creaks and groans, at slow speeds the steering is as heavy as that of an oil tanker, and the unassisted brake pedal ideally requires both feet.

But the faster you go the more responsive things get. Not only does the car gobble up corners as if on rails, it invites you to accelerate round them. The lazy 217 bhp engine makes a noise like a washing machine (greatly disturbing OS’s cairn terrier) while you and Mr Toad struggle continuously for control of the steering wheel.

Took a little drive via Golden Valley to Hay-on-Wye, and the hills were alive with an engine beat that belonged to my youth. Speed, said Aldous Huxley, is the only new vice of our modern age. D’accord. Hay has the most beautifully located car-park in Britain: spot the Carrera.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Seduction for the elderly

Some music arrives by the back door.

When I was still in my editorial pomp a Swiss businessman, who had better remain anonymous, spent a good deal of his company cash currying my favour. Got me tickets to Glyndebourne, accompanied me to the Paris Opera for Berg’s Wozzeck, dined me at Le Grand Véfour (then a Paris three-star), chatted about his Ferrari and about his vintage violin on which he played Bach. We got on. I sent him LPs by Solomon, piano master of Beethoven’s slow movements, and he urged me to try Notturno by the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck.

Schoeck who died in 1957 is modern-ish but not oppressively so. Notturno, for string quartet and voice (baritone in my case), incorporates settings of four German poems. I bought the LP, played it once, didn’t take it in, let it languish. A decade later I transferred my LPs to CDs and thereby re-discovered Notturno. Gentle, reflective, predominantly minor-key, it’s a small masterpiece; it’s playing now and the German word traurig (sad) recurs. Perfect music for someone of my age and disposition.

I wrote thanking him for this late-flowering piece and he phoned me back. Meanwhile Notturno shuffles its way into my consciousness. Again, this is not a recommendation: too much would have to come together for that. Just a celebration of how things can happen and hopes of further Notturno moments for all of us.

NOVEL Nineteen out of twenty chapters subjected to first-pass revision: result 6579 words (out of the original 119,154) have bit the dust. I feel cleaner for it.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Ambassador to the nasty bits

Orla Guerin, BBC TV war correspondent, an enthusiasm shared with Mrs BB.

A flattering photo. Skeletal Orla, with panda eyes, weighs seven stones (98 lb) and is daughter to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – take your pick. Her Northern Ireland accent is quite different from the romantic mush uttered south of the border and is, alas, forever associated in Anglo ears with two decades of bombings, impromptu executions and internecine political warfare between extreme Republicans and those who ironically call themselves Loyalists in that troubled province west of the Isle of Man.

We first noticed her in Israel, intent on evolving into a corporeal symbol of that agonised stretch of sand and dissension, forcing us night after night to avoid being blasé about irreconcilables. Abruptly, when on the verge of dying from sheer compassion, she turned up (I think) south of Zimbabwe trying to make sense of Robert Mugabe. Was this a BBC joke, a sort of holiday? Seems the Israelis had kicked her out for over-sympathising with the Palestinians. Can one over-sympathise?

Thereafter floods in Bangladesh, refreshing forays into Afghanistan, disasters in central African states and… I’ve lost count. Presently wearing a flak-jacket she’s reporting the Libyan rebels. Why are we touched? Because she puts herself in harm’s way and has the capacity to lower that unpromising accent into a groan of suppressed rage about man’s inhumanity to man. She couldn’t be less glamorous but then stars don’t need glamour.

GORGON TIMES “I do think you write well, but I think it would be quite hard to place - I'm just not convinced it would catch the eye of the editors of literary lists, which is where I think its market would be.” Anne Williams, agent.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Ahead in an over-crowded race

Know what you’re thinking. Lurid paperbacks proffered by that fearfully pretentious BB who likes to boast about Ulysses and Proust. Indeed. One point: these titles, mostly secondhand, were gathered lovingly throughout the world via Abe Books and all have been re-read. My discovery.

Ross Thomas, an American, died in 1995. Wikipedia refers to “his witty thrillers that expose the mechanisms of professional politics.” A narrow view but you get an idea from jobs he’s held: “public relations specialist, reporter, union spokesman, political strategist in the USA, Bonn and Nigeria.” He writes about power and its misuse, but not all the time. As to “witty” there are clues in some of the titles: The Fools In Town are on our Side, Twilight at Mac’s Place, and Ah, Treachery!

His men and women get on with the job, don’t complain, hide their intellect, feature in labyrinthine plots, hover on the brink of irony. They travel around and there’s always a sense of place.

As with his predecessor, Dashiell Hammett, Thomas’s dialogue says a lot in almost no words at all. Here’s Chinaman’s Chance:

“Was he evil?”
“Evil. That's not a word I use much.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t suppose he was. Or is.”
“What he did, he did because he thought he was right.”
Durant shook his head. “He didn’t just think it; he knew it.”
“But he wasn’t was he?”
“Well, he’s in jail,” Durant said.
“But that doesn’t mean we were right.”
“No,” Durant said, “it means we got away with it.”
“And that’s what counts.”

There’s a reason I’m not recommending Thomas: if you tried him and didn’t like him, it might change our relationship.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Enjoying it isn't enough

Betrayal: I do it all the time.

I read books, watch movies, observe paintings, hear music and often I’m moved and impressed. What’s my next step? Not beholden to any Mystical Presence I feel I must – repeat must - honour human achievement since creating stuff is far harder than simply consuming it. Which means if I’m honest and care to do my bit I must broadcast my experiences. A duty for which writers, directors, actors, painters, composers and instrumentalists are entitled to demand my best efforts.

Alas, I tend to betray my heroes - mainly by omission. I say nothing. On rare occasions I do communicate what I know but fail again. Defective technique, defective passion. Very very rarely (ten times in a lifetime) I succeed. This can be exhilarating since I benefit too.

Music’s the hardest. It’s time-dependant and requires a language I only dimly understand. Many people share my dimness. So, is it worth the effort? Yes, it is. Music moves me more than anything else.

Yesterday I was writing as usual. A Haydn string quartet was playing, the one which includes the German national anthem melody in a spare, stately, slow form quite different from that when Sebastian Vettel wins a grand prix. It’s a simple tune and I was able to pick it out on my keyboard in the right key as the Borodin played it. This isn’t usually what music’s about but it was musical and pleased me. The best music seems to fit something in us which we already know, creating harmony between hearer and what is heard. A heavenly state marked by a gentle fizz. I fizzed and went on writing.

Probably another betrayal. But I have to try; in the end other people are what matter.

Friday, 12 August 2011

When it comes to Microsoft, don't dither

Not so much technology, more human nature.

Years ago, as a bumper birthday present, Mrs BB (working in secret with her techno-advisers) bought me a Logitech wireless mouse. Then, wireless was the coming thing and it cost an eye-watering £75. Weighed a ton, worked a treat. I’m hard on mouses and eventually it wore out. Bought and tried two more wireless mouses but both were inadequate. Cast them aside in anger and made do with a £10 cheapo conventional mouse – with a tail.

Here’s where human nature enters the story. As I write (ie, word process) my hand perspires, an inevitable outcome of seeking le mot juste. To the cognoscenti I am the Flaubert of the Marches. Perspiration builds up on the mouse and a solid deposit eventually gums up the works. One reason of several why my social circle is so circumscribed. I needed another cheapo mouse.

Conventional mouses at PC Retail come in two price bands: £10 (made in Nepal, utterly unheralded) and £15 (same thing, branded Microsoft). For minutes I dithered over this piffling difference, hating to be suckered into big-brand pusillanimity. In the end I went MS and:

Oh the difference in me.

That’s a quote by the way. The sensuous pleasure in that delicate yet positive click, quite quite superior to the previous cheapo. I’d have paid millions willingly. As we should for things we use every day of our lives. Forget the luxuries. Moral: I’ve absolutely no idea.

NOTE: The word “mouses” is used deliberately to stir up pedants.

NOVEL Original wordage (119,154) now down to 117,208 after first-pass editing of seven-and-a half chapters.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

I pay Denplan so should I suffer?

Yesterday I reflected on the nature of pain. Rachel’s a hygienist and, no doubt at all, her grinding, poking and scratching hurts. But how much? The worst pain I ever felt was a bout of sciatica, closely followed by the aftermath of dislocating my shoulder and cracking the scapula while ski-ing. Being de-plaqued wasn’t in that league and, in any case, the pain was different. Having to remain passive (Bad form, old man, to wriggle.) was one difference. Another was the inescapable belief that the pain could get worse at any moment. That Rachel’s wretched ironmongery would break through the tooth, mince up the nerve and send me into outer space.

Interesting, that. Apprehension and pain are, in effect, the same sensation.

Afterwards I was slapped on the wrist for not using an electric toothbrush. It’s the rotary motion that counts. Mrs BB has one so I bought my own brush-head at Tesco. The brush motor has a two-minute timer to keep you at it and I have to say two minutes is close to eternity.

Before she went electrical Mrs BB – whose views on dentistry constitute the most private and irrational aspect of her life I’m aware of – used to sing a song in her head which lasted exactly two minutes. A mantra to keep Rachel at bay. Emerging this morning from my little Calvary in the en suite I asked Mrs BB what the song was. She refused to say. I wasn’t entirely surprised.

Yesterday included a check-up by the real dentist, a willowy blonde whose friendliness is a bit too synthetic. She felt my lymph glands and asked me to do suggestive things with my tongue. But there is no eroticism in the dentist’s chair.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Pigs wallow, so why not amateur authors?

In a sense no one else need read this; it is a memo to myself, celebrating one of those events which is personal, transient and mouselike. If I were delusional I might say I have finished Stall Recovered and it runs to 119,154 words. But I must be pedantic; the only thing that’s complete is the first draft. Much will change. Anglicisms will be drawn like rotten teeth from the mouths of Americans, repetitive phrases I have over-loved will disappear, unnecessary sentences (“He looked at her face.”) – the clues to passing incompetence - will be sighed over and removed, inconsistences shuddered at and replaced, and an inordinate total of italicised French words will diminish.

Why allow these defect to appear in the first place? Evelyn Waugh, the great stylist, wrote his drafts in one go in fountain pen and no tinkering was necessary. But amateur brains are less well organised. In engaging on such a foolhardy project as a novel one twists and untwists many themes while simultaneously visiting the past and the future. Verb tenses hint at the temporal tangle; when you find yourself forced to use “had had” you may need to go back a couple of paras and simplify time.

Why write a novel? Because you have an idea you’d like to test. A character you’re rather in love with. Or because you’re tempted as you might be by woodwork. If you’ve tried to write other novels then there’s the dubious thrill of re-entering an obsessional world which will cause you to avoid household necessities and social obligations. Another justification is boasting. Some people are gently impressed, mainly by the task of putting together such a vast number of words. Quality or meaning are less important.

Have I got the germ of an idea for the next one? asks Mrs BB. No I haven’t. Just let me wallow for a minute or two.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Corsair? It's unequivocal

HOW I BECAME A HACK Part three. Returning from the USA in 1972 I looked back on two decades of journalism. The early years had included amateurish, unconnected writing; latterly I’d improved others’ stuff. Now, thanks to Plutarch, I was writing about a subject I was familiar with. At this shockingly late juncture (aged 37), and for reasons I cannot explain, I decided to learn to write.

“Learn to write” is open-ended; everyone dies a student. “Write more disciplined articles” sounds better. Later, the matter of style arose.

Earlier methods were a hindrance. Writing at 1000 words/hour meant finishing a sentence in such a way that a new sentence might be tacked on seamlessly. Nothing more. Optimism drove the process. I needed to plan. A tangential first paragraph, a significant interviewee quote three paragraphs in, the project’s difficulties ticked off one by one, a growing sense of enlightenment, success. Bingo!

Amateurs love the first, fine careless rapture; to them planning sounds dull. But from planning rhythm emerges, first between paragraphs, then between sentences, then within. How slow I was to recognise the short contrasting sentence, thrown like salt into a stew. And that sentences needn’t bustle in like Mrs Peg’s subject-verb-object but could sidle deferentially.

But we are what we are. My weakness is facetiousness (to the alarm of many Americans). A desire not to be taken as serious or – worse – earnest. I tried my hand at verse but lapsed. I enjoyed the cleverness but the very act of setting out to write verse seemed grandiose and smelt of academia, never my natural lair. The techniques I have half-learned are rarely employed on big subjects. The novels are an attempt to set this right but I may have left it too late. Le style, they say, c’est l’homme.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Sad when you think of his wasted life

HOW I BECAME A HACK Part two. After two years as tea boy (Part one) I became a junior reporter at a district office serving morning, evening and (mostly) weekly papers. Picking up:

Shorthand. (Above) Chrysanthemum and herbaceous border in Pitman. A 1000-word article based on a chrysanthemum society techno-talk demands shorthand. Memory alone is inadequate and dangerous. I had 100 wpm certificate, could write 120 wpm but bad handwriting meant bad shorthand. Later, shorthand hindered my writing ability. Shorthand recorded what was said not what was done; this inhibited comment and imagination.

Interviewing. Haphazard, self-taught: uneducated youth struggling in adult-dominated society. Teaching oneself to ask: Your husband was killed today in car crash, what school did he go to?

Understanding institutions. Meetings of special-interest groups, local councils, governing bodies of churches, etc, follow patterns. Certain events within a pattern are newsworthy, others not. Vital to understand patterns of procedure at courts-at-law. Contempt of Court provisions permit unlimited punishment for unwary.

Typing. Self-taught with high level of motivation. Guideline: ability to write 1000-word article in one hour on to typewriter from scratch.

Writing style. Theoretically unimportant since articles were formulaic. However, a better style might catch the eye of someone important. Other reasons: pride and cuttings book.

What is news? Overrated judgment picked up by almost everyone after two weeks in journalism. Definition: a tiny exception in a dross pile of the expected. Sometimes a fact; more often something said. Recognition tip: newsworthy stuff comes with its own implicit headline.

Endurance. Sixty-hour weeks common. Social life so fragmented I drank during brief interstices as my only hobby. Avoiding clichés, I became one.

Part three. Learning to write