Thursday, November 30, 2006

Crazy poetry guy

An occasional visitor to this blog, and commenter, is a guy called Beau Blue. Like a lot of people who come here when they have nothing better to do he's a little crazy so I didn't pay him too much attention other than hoping he wasn't going to come round and visit me some day soon.

And then I realised that Beau has a website. You can visit it here. And you should visit it too. It really is a most extraordinary site, devoted almost entirely to poetry. What is really unusual is that you don't just get to read the poems, you get to listen to them too.

Now, I still think Beau is crazy but he's crazy in that eccentric way that makes the world such an interesting place. So interesting that I think I'll hook up a link to him.

But Beau, if you are thinking of coming round, please don't. I've moved. Honest.

Pundy House Blog of the Year Awards

This year the annual Pundy House Literary Blog of the Year Awards will take place here on this blog on Friday 8th December 2006.

The categories are as follows:

1. All-Round Literary Blogs:

a) A-listers
b) B-listers
c) C-listers
d) D-listers

2. Best Writerly Literary Blog

3. Most Informative Literary Blog

4. Most Controversial Literary Blog

5. Most Original Literary Blog

6. Best by a Published Writer

7. Best by an Unpublished Writer

8. Best Newcomer

9. Wittiest Literary Blog

10 Best Campaigning Literary Blog

11 Best Literary Blog located in Aberdeenshire, Scotland

And, finally:


Readers are welcome to submit nominations but should be aware that these will have no bearing on the final decision.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ten good things

This isn't one of them meme-things or anything like that. It's more like a bit of fluff really. The thing is, I am, as you may have noticed, a gloomy old bastard. You probably think I sit here all day in the Pundy House muttering to myself about how awful life is. Well, I do actually.

But, notwithstanding my determination to look on the black side of things, life isn't uniformly bad. Most of it is pretty shitty of course but there are some rays of light. Whether or not there are TEN good things to celebrate about it is a challenge I have yet to resolve in the course of this Post. We'll see.

So, as an antidote to all the doom and gloom I've heaped on you in the past year here's Ten Good Things that have happened to me in the last twelve months:

1 I kept blogging for a whole year (seriously, if you knew me you would think this was incredible).

2 I met a lot of nice, intelligent people as a result and I got to insult them.

3 I captured my own strain of wild yeast and nurtured it and made some fantastic sourdough bread.

4 I grew a shedload of Jalapeno peppers in the polytunnel and made several gallons of chilli con carne that were the best I've ever tasted.

5 I was there when my wife learned she had been made a Professor.

6 My youngest son came back from Spain and got a proper job.

7 Several people read A Half Life of One and liked it.

8 Er...

Okay. Call it Seven Good Things then. Gee, I though there were more but I can't think of any. Still, better than nothing, I'm sure you'll agree.

Tomorrow, back on familiar territory with Fifty Bad Things.

Work in progress

Yesterday I said I'd tell you what's wrong with my work-in-progress novel, "Mummy's Boy".

Actually, there's nothing wrong with it - yet.

I had a wobble about it like all writers do, is all. Having thought more about it - and spent more time writing and re-reading what I've written - I think it's too early either way to come to any conclusions. I don't think it matters right now anyway. Really, what I need to do at this stage is plough on regardless and finish the damned thing. Then I can make a decision about whether it's a pile of junk or my latest masterpiece. And if it isn't very good I can then decide whether it's fixable or not. And if it isn't I can start the next one - an SF genre novel about a kid with an unhappy childhood on Mars who escapes to some distant planet populated by a race of beautiful and loving women or some such stuff.

What I am obliged to do at this stage, though, is guard against certain dangers that I see lurking around such as:

1 I don't want this to turn into some form of "misery memoir" like Angela's Ashes or something written by Dave Pelzer. I loathe these kind of "autobiographies".

2 I need to get the main character (based on me of course) to grow up more quickly. Everything is seen through the eyes of this main character and it's hard to show emotional depth and intellectual development through the eyes of someone so young (he's seven or so at the moment).

3 This isn't an autobiography so I need to invent more rather than simply relating half-remembered events from my childhood.

4 Got to get some laughs in there quickly.

5 Got to get some happiness in there too - if only to highlight the bad stuff. Contrasting colours. A roller coaster of emotions. Not all drab grey like my last book.

6 Got to develop the plot more - don't know how to do this yet. But I've got to find some way to hook the reader, fuck it, to grab the reader by the hair and drag him/her along. No more mister nice guy.

7 I know the theme of the book even if I can't express it yet. At its simplest it's all about the way your parents "fuck you up". You can do your damnedest but you can't escape their influence, even if they're dead. You may not even know they are the ones who've fucked you up. Even though you don't know it you're trapped, trussed up like a turkey by that invisible umbilical cord. You've been brainwashed and you'll be their clone even when you think you've struck out on your own in the opposite direction.

Oh, and I'll be arguing that all parents are bad for their children. And that parents are a heavy burden on their children, the monkeys on their backs. So it's a double whammy. Stuff like that.

The nuts and bolts of good writing can come with the re-writes. You know. Round out the characters. Sharpen up the dialogue. Insert some good description. Beef up the prose with some muscular verbs. Prune out the adverbs. Shorten. The. Sentences. Sprinkle on some magic poetic dust. Bake in the oven for six months and re-write. Send off to agent. Come to terms with the first rejection slip. Blog about it. Renounce all stupid literary aspirations. Train as a plumber. Find wealth and happiness. Fix leaky tap in bathroom.

Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

June 1953

(Here's another chapter from my work-in-progress novel. Tomorrow I'll tell you what I think is wrong with it and with the book in general).

They went up to Chadwell on the bus to watch the Coronation on the television. They went to the same house they had stayed in for a month when they’d been evacuated after the flood in January. It was all uphill after they got off the bus and his mum was soon out of breath. It was really hot and he was thirsty so they stopped at a shop and his dad bought him a frozen Jubbly. His Dad had his suit on and a white shirt with blood on the collar where he had cut himself shaving. He still had a bit of toilet paper sticking to his chin to stop the bleeding. His mum was wearing a hat and gloves like she did when she used to go to church. She was wearing lipstick too and it came off on the fag she was smoking.

Mr Vickers opened the door. He wore the same brown cardigan he had before when they stayed there. He led them into the sitting room and sat down in his favourite chair next to the fire. The house looked the same apart from the telly in the corner. Mr Vickers lit up a pipe while his wife made a pot of tea. He still had his slippers on even though it was the afternoon. He was very fat and his trousers were held up by green braces. The television was a new one they had bought specially. Mr Vickers said they were paying for it on the never-never. He said he had no trouble fixing up the HP because he had a steady job in the shoe factory. Renting a telly was a mug’s game, he said. He was the only person they knew who had a television. Mrs Vickers cleaned the screen with a damp cloth and moved some flowers out of the way so they could all see the screen.

“I wish we could afford a telly like that,” his mum said.

“We might,” said his dad, “If the pools come up.”

They all laughed, except Chris. He didn’t care if his dad couldn’t afford a telly. It wasn’t his dad’s fault that there hadn’t been much overtime recently. Anyway, he preferred his books out the library. They didn’t cost anything.

The house smelled funny like it did before. Other people’s houses always smelled funny. This one smelled of burnt bacon.

His mum hadn’t wanted to go because she was too tired but his dad said, “Come on, Anne, you’ll enjoy seeing the Queen being crowned.”

So in the end, after a lot of fussing about so that they nearly missed the bus, his mum came.
After the kettle had boiled they all had tea and some fruit cake which came from the Co-op. Chris didn’t like the taste of the fruit cake but he ate it to be polite. He didn’t want to show his mum up by behaving badly when they were in company.

“So how have you both been keeping since we last saw you?” said Mr Vickers, removing the pipe from his mouth.

“Mustn’t grumble,” his dad said.

“You have to make the best of it, don’t you,” said his mum.

“What about the young lad. Still growing I see.”

His mum laughed. “He’s eating us out of house and home. He’s going to be as tall as his grandfather if you ask me.”


“His grandfather on my side was six feet five.”

“That is tall.”

They finished the rest of their tea in silence. Mr Vickers studied the Radio Times. “It starts at three,” he said eventually.

Nobody said anything. You could hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. Mrs Vickers got up and started to clear away the dishes. His mum used to say she was too house-proud by half.

“Switch it on on the way out, will you,” said Mr Vickers.

Mrs Vickers eyed the television nervously. They all watched her, wondering what would happen. Eventually she bent down and pushed a button under the screen. There was a loud pop and then a buzzing noise. They all watched nervously as the buzzing noise grew louder. Then the screen flickered like it was snowing.

“It takes a while to warm up,” said Mr Vickers, “What would you like to drink, Anne?” “Oh, I won’t bother. Drink doesn’t agree with me.”

“Go on, it’s a special occasion. It’s not every day the Queen gets crowned, is it. Have a glass of sherry.”

“Oh, all right. Just the one.”

“What about you, Henry?”

Chris didn’t know his dad’s name was Henry.

“Don’t mind if I do. I’ll have a stout, please, Charles.”

The Coronation went on all afternoon. Chris sat in a corner reading William The Outlaw while the grown-ups chatted and drank.

When he went to bed they were laughing and talking loudly all the time. He thought they might be drunk although he’d never seen anyone like that before. Later on he was woken up by the sound of shouting and screaming. It sounded like his mum. He thought about going downstairs and begging her to be quiet but he knew she wouldn’t listen. He should have got her to come up to bed when he went. Usually she fell asleep without much trouble. It was the best time of the day when she went to bed. He shoved his head under the pillow to drown out the noise. Somebody banged on the wall from the house next door.

In the morning the three of them got up early and went to catch the bus without having breakfast even though he was starving. They didn’t say goodbye. It felt like they were running away. Chris felt ashamed. Somehow he felt it was all his fault. He shouldn’t have bullied his mum into coming.

“You didn’t have to let them talk to me like that,” his mum said as they stood at the bus stop.

His dad made a face.

“You should’ve stuck up for me like a real man. I was black affronted.”

“They didn’t mean anything. You took it all wrong.”

“That’s right. Blame me for it all. As usual.”

“What did they say?” said Chris.

They waited for the bus in silence. His dad looked really miserable and he wanted to go and hold his hand but he knew his mum would be upset if he did. She got jealous really easily. He could just imagine how she must have behaved. She didn’t know when to shut up, that was the problem. It was the same at home. She never stopped.

It was the last time they ever went out to visit anyone.

Monday, November 27, 2006

You're killing me

Buried away in amongst the Comments of one of my recent posts a remark by Maxine has been nagging away at my brain ever since I read it.

In a previous post that I had written Maxine believes she has discerned some hidden meaning. As a result she asks: "Were you saying to us all 'I'm not really nice you know.'"

Was I saying I'm not really nice? Hm. A lot of people harbour a degree of self-loathing which is probably quite justified and I'm no different. The hero of my novel A Half Life of One is obviously based on me and it's also pretty obvious I hold him in considerable contempt. Indeed, I think it is one of the major weaknesses of the novel. I wondered recently if the same effect wasn't at work, to a lesser extent, in Derec Jones' excellent novel The Three Bears.

I've mentioned before the story of the girl I met as a student who told me, as I attempted to engage her in a relationship that was somewhat more amorous than the one she had in mind, "I think you're a nasty person trying to be nice." I've often wondered if she was right.

At the same time I'm reminded of Evelyn Waugh who was a very nasty person who wouldn't dream of pretending to be nice. And still he wrote exquisitely. In fact, I don't think you can tell what kind of person he was from his novels. But I bet if he was alive today and had a blog - admittedly unlikely since the thought of having any kind of contact with his readers was anathema to him - you would know within a matter of hours exactly what kind of a misogynistic, snobbish, racist and reactionary chap he actually was.

So am I not a very nice person?

I can be pretty nasty at times. I'm at my worst in certain social situations. Usually drink is involved. Everyone is having a good time. I find myself on a roll, witty as hell. People are laughing uproariously. I choose my victim, the weakest person in the room. I pierce her with darting wit, drawing blood. My timing is impeccable, it's like I have a rapier in my hand. My victim is clutching her sides, tears streaming down her face, gulping in air. She gasps, "Stop it, stop it, you're killing me."

And I don't stop.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Writer behaving badly

I have a suspicion that most blogging careers, like those in politics, end in failure. Especially confessional blogs such as this one, where with every succeeding post the shrouds are drawn further back to reveal the writer's feet of clay. Indeed, I have an uncomfortable feeling that this post in particular is going to hammer a few more nails into the coffin of my blogging ambitions.

Be that as it may, I need to tell you how the other day I found myself thinking about what was my real motivation for wanting to be a writer. What drove me to form that passionate need to communicate with my fellow human beings? Gradually I traced the development of my vocation back to my adolescent years, and that's when the trouble began.

When I was sixteen and first gripped by the burning desire to become a writer I read E. M. Foster's Howards End in which he propounded his famous dictum "only connect." Unfortunately, as far as my future readers were concerned I didn't only want to connect with them. I'm sorry to say I wanted to shag them too. Only the female ones, I hasten to add. Back then I wasn't anything like as radical or experimental a writer as I imagined myself to be.

At the time, of course, I was totally convinced of my own latent genius. Based on no evidence other than my totally unjustified self-belief I had convinced myself that I was potentially as great a writer as Tolstoy (who I had never read; still haven't in fact). I firmly believed it was my fate to be as universally revered as the great Russian writer while at the same time being as dissolute as Fitzgerald or Hemingway. And, naturally, I was well aware that if you're some kind of artistic genius then it is perfectly alright to behave badly, indeed it's virtually de rigeur. Once you reach those higher echelons of artistic endeavour whatever you do will be tolerated. If I had any doubts about becoming a writer, this knowledge spurred me on.

And so I imagined myself earning great fame and fortune from my writing. I determined I would spend the bulk of the money on the finest wines. The callowness of my ambition can be gauged from the fact that, in today's money, I reckoned I would have to spend between four and five pounds to get a decent bottle of wine, a small fortune but a necessary investment if I was ever going to become suitably dissolute.

Nor was there to be anything cheap about the literary groupies I fantasized I was going to attract once I reached the summit of the bestseller list. As well as being beautiful they would also have to be incredibly well read and have, at the very least, a first class degree from a good university. Almost my intellectual equal in fact. This would make for good conversation but even more importantly, because I abhorred the potential tawdriness of life, I reasoned that by conducting my affairs in an intellectually rarefied atmosphere I would insulate myself against any suggestion of the second rate. Just to make sure, I determined that these slim, blonde, long-haired admirers would come almost exclusively from the upper classes, although they wouldn't be horsey or agricultural, having spent most of their youth ensconced in the family library, buried deep within the bowels of the stately pile. So they would be pale too. Interestingly pale, with milky breasts just like the kind Lawrence wrote about.

Despite the fact that I lived on a council estate in deepest nowhere in the very back of beyond I figured that meeting these sexually supercharged fans once I became famous wouldn't be a problem. Apart from my weekly sojurns down to the London literary salons I felt sure that the regular and extensive Lecture Tours I would embark upon in America would provide rich hunting grounds for my predatory ambitions. Indeed, it occurred to me that exhaustion would likely be my biggest challenge. Oh, and sexual disease, about which I was only vaguely aware at the time. Uneasily I recalled that I had read somewhere that if I was going to be promiscuous I'd need to wear a condom. This was bad news. I abhorred condoms. Apart from anything else they were always too big. Not to mention the idea of going into the local chemist to buy a packet. In the end I decided that when women started throwing themselves at me I would risk my health for my Art. Besides, I could hardly deny my fans their fifteen minutes of satisfaction. I owed it to them - they had bought my books after all. Back then of course most of the STDs floating around were innocent, innocuous little germs such as non-specific eurythritis and gonhorrea, easily treated with penicillin. Syphilis was more problematic but I accepted that one couldn't create great Art without taking some risks.

As the years passed my lack of publishing success only consolidated my literary fantasy. I got married but reasoned that my wife would readily forgive my future transgressions when I hit the literary big time, accepting that my randy behaviour was necessary to sustain my artistic drive. After we had been married for several years we moved out into the country, removing me even further from the temptations, and rewards, of the literary scene. I remained undismayed. My fans would be a resouceful lot, driven by insatiable desire. I imagined them arriving at our cottage by bus.

As I matured my fantasy developed and took on a life of its own. For example, I regularly pictured myself at breakfast with my wife, at a time when several of my novels were dominating the best seller lists.

"This place is too small. We need somewhere to keep them, an extension," I can hear myself saying, as I peruse yet another bumper royalty cheque.
"How many are here at the moment?" my wife asks, a trifle anxiously.
"At least seven."
"Gracious. I hope I've got enough eggs. They're always ravenous in the morning."
"Let them sleep a bit longer. They're fu...shagged out, the poor dears."
"It's all right for them. They're only here for one night. It's you I worry about, darling. You're at it every night now you're famous. You're going to kill yourself at this rate."
I raise my eyes wearily and smile at her. Her concern for my welfare is indeed touching. But we both know we are making sacrifices for a higher deity, for my Art. Indeed, that's why she has given up her career as a scientist, in order that she can devote herself more fully to my needs and ensure the survival of my muse.

And then gradually, along with my libido, the dream fades, its diminution measured in rejection slips. My muse is still around but she remains a virgin. The only virgin in the village, in fact.

Which, now I come to think about it, is probably no bad thing.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The problem with blogging

One of the big problems with blogging is that most of your fellow bloggers are so nice. Don't deny it. You know who you are. Okay, there's a couple of you I'll exempt from that description, but you're the exception that proves the rule.

It's a problem because your collective niceness makes it hard to get critically objective feedback when you want it. After all, if you read this blog for a while you begin to believe that you know me, hell, some of you even think of me as a friend. Don't try and deny it - I've got e-mails to prove it. And no-one likes to hurt a friend, do they. Okay, JTA, apart from you. (It's a joke, JTA, don't get upset. See, you've got me doing it now. Niceness is catching. Dammit.)

It's worse than that though. Because of this virtual friendship, this sort of cosy little world of like-minded people that we've constructed, this extended family barricaded against the horrors of the nuclear age, it would be a crime almost akin to incest to turn on one of our own.

Okay, deny it, as I know you will. But at least ensure that your critical faculties haven't in any way been blunted before you accede to my request. If anything, go the other way. Just don't kill me with kindness.

Here's my problem. I'm at work on my next novel. I'm about a quarter of the way through and I'm at that point familiar to all writers where I'm wondering if the whole thing isn't a big mistake. I need you to tell me whether it is or not. I may not listen to you - I probably won't - but I would like to hear your thoughts, which may at least signpost me on my way.

The book is called Mummy's Boy and it's really about me and my mother and my attempts to get free of her malign influence as I grow up. So it's a sort of family saga. I haven't got anywhere near the end yet but already I know that it's not going to have a happy ending - you never get free of your parents' influence do you? They fuck you up...and all that. Besides, it wouldn't be me if it had a happy ending.

I've posted a few chapters already on the blog. The titles are mostly in the form of a month and a year. I'll post another chapter up tomorrow which I think illustrates rather well why I'm having second thoughts.

I really would appreciate your feedback before I waste any more of my time. Or yours, for that matter.

The business of writing

Funnily enough I don't think of writing as a business. Nor do I treat it as such.

I guess I've written five unpublished novels in total now (slightly shocks me that I can't remember exactly how many) and with none of them did I have a market in mind. The exact opposite in fact. I wrote them from the heart, and if you've looked into my heart you'll know that's a pretty grim and unprepossessing place to be. The last one in particular was almost wilfully uncommercial. The others just weren't very good.

And yet publishing IS a business. It needs to sell books - lots of them - to survive. Same goes for agenting. These guys live on commission, you can't blame them for looking for the next big thing.

Oh, I know all the counterarguments. Talent will out. They'll take a risk on a first novel because they can see the potential. And I'm sure they will. But the potential for what? The answer surely must be that one day you will make the big sales that will make the whole thing commercially viable.

So maybe if I ever want to get published by a traditional publisher - and that's looking increasingly unlikely unless I alter my ways - I need to be more commercial in my approach to writing.

Perhaps I need to write with a view to actually getting published. You know, find a genre that suits me, sit down and develop a killer plot, develop a sympathetic hero, leave everyone feeling good at the end.

I mean, it's not rocket science is it. Oh. I think I've covered that subject in the previous post.

Perhaps I'm talking out of my arse again, just like that soldier who fired the rocket from a similar location.

Hot potatoes and great blogging - Final Part

So, we've established that the core concept for success in business and, maybe, blogging is Differentiation. Not exactly rocket science is it? Then again, neither is rocket science. Light the blue touch paper and stand clear. What's difficult about that? Except, plenty of people still don't get it. Take a look here on Debra Hamel's blog to read about the soldier who thought it would be a good idea to launch a rocket from his arse.

So, let's assume before you launch (or indeed re-launch) your blog you decide that you must differentiate it in some way. How? If you pose the same question to a group of would-be entrepreneurs as I said before the first response is likely to be price. But blogs are free so that option isn't open to you. The next most popular response is usually "Quality". This is a difficult concept to define but in business terms it's practically useless. In business today quality is a given. If you're not offering a quality service or product you're not even at first base because everyone else is doing just that. Quality is not a differentiating factor any more. Which is a sobering thought in blogging terms. There are so many blogs out there, and so many of them are outstanding, that you are going to have to keep up a fearsome standard if you wish to build up and retain your readership.

Before I started my own blog I looked at the "competition" and tried to identify what qualities might be missing in the particular niche I wished to enter. Which happened to be books and writing because that's what really interests me. After a lot of thought, but with no particular end in mind other than the need to attract a few readers, I reckoned that humour and the personal angle seemed a little underprovided for in the rarefied atmosphere of the literary blogosphere. I decided to make those two attributes the defining features of my blog. I'll let you decide how successful or otherwise I've been in realising my aims.

Something else you might want to think about before you launch is sustainability. In business we're always talking about the struggle to sustain our competitive advantage. That's because, once you're up there the only way is down. I would put a slightly different interpretation on the concept in blogging terms, but there is obviously no point in majoring on something that runs out of steam after a few months just as you're getting established. Make sure, in other words, that you've got plenty to write about and a big enough market to sustain the interest you provoke.

Finally, how was it for me? Well, so far it's been a pretty rewarding experience. I've had a few wobbles of course, nearly went bust on a couple of occasions when I ran out of things to say and the world seemed to get on top of me. But the surprising thing is that by and large it's been a hugely enjoyable experience. I've also learned a lot about myself. In baring my soul to the world I've had to take a long hard look at myself to find out what was really lurking in those dark recesses. As a result I've seen things I didn't even know were there.

So have other people. A few posts back I wrote about the trauma of going to University while my mother was having yet another mental breakdown. I don't think I'd ever talked about this to another living soul before. Somebody called Chris left a Comment to say how fascinated he was by the story.

I don't know for certain but I'm pretty sure that the Chris in question is my youngest, grown-up son. If I'd only ever attracted one reader to this blog and it was him then it would all have been worth it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hot potatoes and great blogging - Part 2

With all the entrepreneurial frenzy we've stirred up surrounding the commercial possibilities of making big bucks out of potatoes it's easy to forget their excellent culinary properties. So let's pause for a moment and think about the last time you gorged yourself upon the humble tattie.

What kind of gastronomic experience was it for you? Did your taste buds tingle? Did you salivate with delight as you regarded the mountainous mashed confection in front of you? Or was the experience more akin to stuffing your mouth with cotton wool? If you bought your spuds from a supermarket I suspect the latter.

The trouble with most commercially grown potatoes is that in seeking high yields and uniformity of shape the taste of the tattie has been largely ignored. So much so that I rarely buy potatoes from a supermarket any more, preferring to grow my own. I like to seek out rare and unusual varieties where taste is paramount. Needless to say, the internet has revolutionised the way I buy my seed potatoes. Heirloom varietes that a few years ago were almost extinct are now available at the touch of a button. My favourite three varieties are currently Ratte (an old French salad variety), Edsell Blues (difficult to cook but superb flavour) and Pink Fir Apple (waxy, nutty and bursting with flavour). These potatoes beat supermarket varieties hands down.

So, here's the next lesson in launching your new business - make sure your core product or service is the best around, a world-beater in fact.

Which brings me finally to the core concept you need to grasp if you're ever going to be successful in business or blogging. In fact, this next concept is probably the most important thing I'll ever tell you in this blog, so PAY ATTENTION. The fundamental, paramount secret to starting a succesful business is a concept called DIFFERENTIATION. Let me say that again. DIFFERENTIATION.

If you can only remember this one concept out of all the things I've ever propounded on this blog then I promise you you'll never go hungry again. The philosophical underpinnings of this concept are actually quite complicated but, put simply, it means that your business - or your blog - needs to be DIFFERENT and BETTER if it's going to have any chance of establishing itself in the market place. Note the BETTER. That's a key attribute and the toughest one to achieve.


Got it? Good. Phew.

Okay. At this point let's return to that lecture I was giving in the previous post. Ranged in front of me are two hundred keen final year MBA students. I'm standing there holding out the plastic bag of potatoes in front of me. I'm about to pose a question to the assembled audience and at this moment it's the natural intelligence of the potato pitted against the collective wisdom of the crowd. Usually, it's a pretty finely balanced contest.

"Can anybody tell me," I intone hopefully, "Exactly how the producers of this bag of potatoes have attempted to differentiate their product?"

Well, you can't see that bag of potatoes but really the answer is obvious. Not so to the crowd. After a lot of kerfuffling the answer eventually emerges. The packagers of the potatoes have labelled their produce as a specific, named variety. In this case, Kerr's Pink. Previously the big potato producers hadn't bothered much with labelling and dismissively named their product White potatoes, or boiling potatoes, or baking potatoes etc. Commodity descriptions for a commodity product. At this point in gastronomic history potato lovers the world over were gnashing their teeth in despair.

And then suddenly the big potato producers woke up to the commercial possibilities of their product. No-one knows why. Maybe it was the threat posed by the growing popularity of pasta. perhaps rice was perceived as a threat, noodles probably less so. Whatever the reason the big wholesalers suddenly started differentiating their product by selling us named varieties and, naturally, charging premium prices.

But of course this attempt at differentiation is a completely spurious application of the concept, pretty close to "passing off" in fact. Because in this case the potato variety is the same commercial variety it has always been, there is no value added, and the ploy is purely a marketing gimmick. In short, the producers have traduced the integrity of the potato brand and ultimately undermined the true value of the noble species, Solanum Tuberosum.

Next thing you know they'll be selling us named varieties of carrots.

Tomorrow I'll bring the tale of the tuber to a triumphant conclusion.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hot potatoes and great blogging - Part 1

I used to give regular talks on the secrets of starting up a profitable business. Some of the lessons I sought to convey back then can be applied equally fruitfully to blogging. Over the next few posts I'll have a look at some of the things you might want to consider before you launch a successful blog.

When I gave my talk I always entered the auditorium carrying a three pound bag of potatoes out in front of me. This novel sight immediately captured everybody's attention. Tittering invariably broke out.

"Hi, folks. You want to be rich and I'm here to show you how. It's easy. So easy in fact that everything you need to know about launching your successful business is contained within this bag of potatoes." My anouncement was usually greeted with looks of amusement, tinged with scepticism.

The first lesson, I informed the audience, is that before you launch a new business you need to learn to think like an entrepreneur. Take the potatoes. Suppose your business is going to be potato-oriented. The first question you need to ask is: where should I position myself on the economic food chain that surrounds this versatile tuber.

Ask yourself: Do I want to be the farmer who ties up vast amounts of capital, and is subject to the vagaries of weather and disease while operating in a commodity market over which I have no control whatsoever? Right at the very bottom of the food chain, in fact. The answer, in case you're wondering, is absolutely not.

Maybe you want to retail potatoes. A corner shop with low overheads and minimal marketing budgets? Not worth the hassle. Open a supermarket? You don't have the capital nor the buying power nor the marketing muscle.

Maybe you could sell your potatoes online. That's a possibility but then you're faced with the question: why would anyone buy from you rather than the supermarket? How are you going to compete? When this question is posed to a group of would-be entrepreneurs you can bet that nine times out of ten the answer is: we'll compete on price. Wrong. Small companies can't compete on price. To compete on price you need volume and that is expensive and difficult to achieve. Small companies that compete on price usually go bust.

If you're going to make money out of potatoes you need to find a way to add value to the basic commodity. How are you going to do that?

Invariably the answers to this conundrum follow a shallow curve up the value-added equation. Washing the potatoes is often the first proferred solution. Okay. But it doesn't really add much value and it costs quite a lot to do. You need to think bigger. Pained silence. How about you cook the potatoes, someone at the back usually pipes up eventually. Good. That's a start. Not a very profitable one but a start nonetheless. What would you do with the cooked potatoes? French Fries? Yeah, good. I know people who make money running a fish and chip shop. It's a cash business which is always good. But it's too limited. I want to make real money. Big bucks. Turn them into Shepherd's Pies, someone else shouts, to much hilarity. Good, better in fact, I enthuse, that would add more value and we could freeze the pies and sell them nationally but we're still not adding enough value. I want to turn these troublesome tubers into gold. Worth more than their weight in gold in fact. Think harder!

"How about potato sculptures?" someone shouts, a little guy with big glasses. I mark him down. That's one guy I won't be investing in.

In the end the group usually iterates its way painfully to the process that will best add enormous value to our humble potato. I'm sure you've worked it out already. Turn them into crisps, of course. Compare the price of a potato to the price of crisps, pound for pound. That's called adding value. Big time.

Except of course it's already been done. Pepsi Cola have cornered the market with lots of variants on the processed potato. There are some specialist producers (Kettle crisps in the UK for example) who hand produce into a niche market and so on. But already we're too late to enter even that market segment.

So, you need to have another look at your potatoes. Maybe you could grow - or better still buy in - rare varieties and sell them online. The kind you can't buy in supermarkets. That sounds like a possibility. More research needed. How about an online Potato Futures Market? A virtual potato exchange? Possible, possible. Do the research. Maybe someone's launched the idea already. And if they haven't there may be a good reason why not.

Maybe potatoes just aren't a good market to be in full stop. Yeah, maybe all our new-found enthusiasm for potatoes is misplaced. Okay. How about carrots instead? Or onions or....Stop! That's enough vegetables for one day.

The key point is, though, that if you're starting a business - or a blog for that matter - you should pause at the very beginning before you make your first big mistake. Take a look at the supply chain you're about to enter and make sure you select the easiest point of entry, the soft underbelly, that unique place where what you do or what you sell can really add value. Added value means big profits. And if you're not profitable you won't survive.

More about potatoes tomorrow.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Two bottles of wine or a good book

I recently spent £18 buying Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and Derec Jones' The Three Bears. For that money I could have bought two pretty decent bottles of wine. After I finished the two books I found myself wondering which would have been the better investment.

I enjoyed The Blind Assassin immensely. It's basically a family saga with lots of dark secrets and unsettling undercurrents. The principal narrator is an elderly lady with a sharp brain and an even sharper tongue. Like Atwood, I suspect, she doesn't suffer fools gladly. There's a vein of mordant wit running through the book which makes it a pleasure to read. My only quibble, in fact, is that it's too long at 637 pages. I think Ms Atwood could have cut two hundred pages without losing anything. Still and all it's a good book, with a gripping story to tell written by someone at the height of her powers. I wish I could write half as well. Hell, make that a quarter.

At 221 pages The Three Bears is a lot shorter but it feels longer. The writing is equally accomplished, the tone is just right for the setting and there's a fine intelligence at work behind the scenes. But there is a problem with the book. It's very definitely not an easy read. And the reason for that is the main protagonist. He is not - very definitely not - a sympathetic character.
And since it's a stream of consciousness type of novel that can make for an uncomfortable read.

The unnamed narrator is well aware of his own fictional shortcomings. He doesn't like himself at all. Come to that he doesn't like most of his friends, he doesn't like the world he inhabits and he doesn't much care for you, the reader, either. It's a mark of how well the book is written that I continued to the end in the face of so much antagonistic bile. I guess I was gripped by a sort of morbid fascination. I wasn't disappointed either - there isn't a happy ending, indeed there may not even be an ending at all.

The book is challenging, no doubt about it. Lots of good books are, of course - maybe ALL good books. It's a close run thing but I'd say this one is worth the effort. In the end, my only real criticism is that the book is so relentlessly downbeat that a lot of the undoubted humour in the writing gets stifled, maybe even suffocated.

So, would I have been better off with two bottles of wine? No. If I had my time again I'd buy one bottle of wine and one book. Which one? Easy. An Australian Shiraz of course.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Space debris

Sometimes you read something so true and yet so strange that the hairs on the back of your neck rise up and the blood drains from your face.

I found myself in exactly this condition less than two hours ago when I read the Comment from Beau Blue in response to my previous post.

You remember my previous post? Due to the extraordinary distortion of the space-time continuum causated by Blogger my previous Post is actually the one after this. Which reversion, incidentally, might have had Einstein beating his head off his keyboard as his Theory of Relativity failed to cope with this extraordinary non-linear time reversal.

You will remember - or you will if you have read the previous post, that is to say the one after this one - that I displayed the two strange artefacts left over after I reassembled my malfunctioning dishwasher. A number of theories were subsequently advanced as to their origin, form and function. Reluctantly I dismissed them all, mostly as too far-fetched or just plain stupid. Until, that is, I came to Beau's post.

"Bits of a space ship" opined Beau. The words hit me like a large chunk of space debris hurtling down through my roof and landing forcefully on my head. How could I have been so stupid, so blind, so uncomprehending. And ultimately so grateful.

Beau, what can I say? Apart from thank you. I mean, obviously once you've had it explained to you it's....well, obvious. But doesn't this response exemplify the true beauty of the internet? Ask any question and the greatest minds in the world are at your disposal, eager and ready to search for a solution. An unprecedented army of truly great thinkers, all without exception experts in their fields. Never before in human history has so much sheer brainpower been available at the press of a button. What did I say the other day? No problems, only solutions. Thanks, Beau, for proving me right.

As a result of Beau's magnificent insight I can once again run the dishwasher without worrying that it might disintegrate, its structural integrity fatally compromised by some leftover mechanical gubbins.

So, we now know what the alien artefacts are. I guess only two questions remain: how did they come to end up inside my dishwasher, here in rural Aberdeenshire, in the middle of nowhere? And, more worryingly, why?

Any ideas, anybody? (not you, Beau).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The road to hell...

is paved with good intentions.

I sat down yesterday morning at the keyboard with the firm intention of writing a nice, upbeat post that would cheer everybody up. But somehow events conspired to thwart me. First off I made the mistake of having a quick look round the blogosphere to see what was happening. I went here to Matt's blog and what I read so shocked me that I was stunned into immobility. Matt writes in the most graphic way about a film I know I should see but I doubt if I could ever pluck up the courage to do so. Read his report and make up your own mind.

Later that morning I had to go into town to see my accountant. Two hours with him and the creative flame was completely extinguished. Creative accounting definitely isn't his thing.

No sooner did I arrive back home in the afternoon than I received a special delivery - the replacement Detergent Dispenser arrived. Now, normally I'm a Luddite when it comes to labour-saving devices like microwaves and stuff but I have to admit that the dishwasher has become an essential part of my life in the last ten years. So when ours went on the blink I determined to fix it.

I'm not exactly a whizz around the house but I set to work on the infernal machine right away. I stripped it down, removing various panels, disconnected the wiring, removed the faulty dispenser (with the help of a hammer), installed the new one, cleaned everything up, repaired the seal and put it all together again.

And then I found these two bits of plastic left over.

Now, I don't know what they are nor what they did. They sort of look important in a spectral, vaguely menacing way. Without them in place maybe the machine would flood the whole kitchen. Somewhat nervously I loaded up the dishwasher and flicked the switch. Fortunately it still works. Above all it doesn't leak. I'm hoping that these two components aren't essential to its future wellbeing. A bit like a human appendix.

If you know different - let me know. Preferably with an installation diagram that an idiot can follow.

Anyway, as I write this post I'm listening to the dishwasher humming away happily down in the kitchen. It really is a machine that loves its work. And that mechanical love is emanating throughout the whole house, spreading sweetness and light all around.

So, it took me a while to get there - but you got your happy Post in the end. I just hope you're suitably grateful.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What a wonderful world

I've been pretty depressed recently - I would say clinically depressed. For about the last week or so, somewhat longer than usual. I've written about this state before and described this as my "chemical" phase, as opposed to my usual low-level or moderate phases. The condition comes on suddenly for no reason and there's nothing really I can do to mitigate it. The good news is it goes as suddenly and mysteriously as it arrives. And today it's gone. Happily, I'm back to being my usual miserable old self.

Blogging isn't eay when you're in this condition. It's very difficult when you're severely depressed to be witty and amusing or to see the world for what it is - a place of contrasts, of good and bad people, of wonderful opportunities and dreadful events. There's no room for hope in my depressed, monochromatic world.

And that's wrong. Because there's always hope. And cause for hope too. To paraphrase John Lennon - there are lots of problems but lots of solutions too. It just takes a while to find them. The danger is that you stop looking.

When I'm in the condition I've been in recently I take comfort in a story I read many years ago. I found it in the unlikely setting of the autobiography of Phil Silvers, the man who played Sergeant Bilko. In middle-age he was struck down by severe and debilitating clinical depression. He tried everything to ameliorate his condition - drugs, therapy, clinical intervention etc - but nothing worked. Many days he couldn't get out of bed. His general health suffered terribly. He couldn't work. His world fell apart. This condition lasted for years. Suicide seemed to be the only way out.

And then one morning he woke up and he was better. Completely back to normal. It was a miracle, truly a miracle.

So when I'm suffering I think of Sergeant Bilko. And he gives me hope. And when I'm better again, he also makes me laugh. And I'm laughing right now just thinking about him and that dopey expression on his face.

And I'm looking forward to the challenge of writing a nice, upbeat, life-affirming blog post for a change.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pundy's Christmas Message

Every year the Queen addresses the nation. That’s a lot of addresses for an old-age pensioner with a writer’s cramp so this year I thought I’d give her a break by jumping in first and doing it on her behalf.

The Christmas festivities start here in the UK just after the Autumn Sales (about the second week of October) and last until the January Sales. This Festive Calendar was set down in Ancient Times when Christmas was actually a Pagan festival. Since then it has been a Roman Festival, a Christian festival and is now a post-Christian out-of-town-shopping-centre Festival.

Our Queen speaks in a posh voice (not as posh as it was in the Fifties or Sixties. More Estuarial Posh now as the monarchy has successfully adapted to the television age) so this post should be read in a posh voice in your head.

“Dearly beloved,

Once again we come together as a nation to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, in a prolonged shopping bonanza unmatched in human history.

As I look down on you from my throne it is with quiet, but justified, satisfaction that I am able to recount the many triumphs of my Government in the year that is drawing slowly – thanks in large part to Global Warming – to a close. Indeed, as I look out upon the grounds of Windsor Castle I am amazed to see that the roses are still in bloom and that the grass is still growing and in fact needs cutting, an oversight which I am sure will be attended to at the end of this broadcast.

This year my Government has played a major part in bringing peace, democracy and Christianity to many parts of the world that were hitherto pagan. Iraq in particular has benefited from the imposition of democracy and the removal of a cruel and vicious dictator. Of course, peace in that country has come at a regrettable cost in terms of the loss of human life but it is a price worth paying, especially by the Iraqi people themselves. Similarly, in Afghanistan your Majesty’s armed forces have played a vital role in restructuring that country and bringing stability and a hitherto undreamed of prosperity to its once-servile population. Our special relationship with our former colony America has greatly aided in the implementation of your government’s strategy in this regard.

On the wider international stage we are pleased to have participated in the opening up of the Nuclear Club. No longer the preserve of an exclusively white, Aryan minority we have welcomed new members in the shape of Israel, India, China and Pakistan. Such a broadening of interests can only add to the stability of the world. Shortly we expect to embrace North Korea, Iran and, one day perhaps, Al Quaeda, into the fold.

Closer to home we have all benefited from major improvements in the Educational System, the National Health Service and the Chelsea Flower Show. My Government is prepared to raise even more taxes – from which, you will be pleased to learn, I am largely exempt – by stealth or otherwise to ensure that these improvements continue. I am also delighted to report that for the vast majority of my subjects (especially those living in sparsely-populated rural areas), crime is down, and our streets are safer. Within this Sceptred Isle our beloved Chancellor has banished poverty to the pages of history. In addition, I am pleased to report that racism and sectarianism are all but eliminated in many parts of our United Kingdom. Needless to say, safeguarding our democratic way of life remains a major plank of my government’s policy and we are prepared to take any steps, however draconian they may seem at the time, to protect your rights as my subjects under this great and enduring monarchy.

As I look back on the fifty and more years I have ruled over you I feel sure that all of you feel as I do, namely that, in the words of the late Harold Macmillan (one of my favourite Prime Ministers who had such exquisite table manners and was so forgiving of his poor wife’s infidelities) “You have never had it so good.” Nor are, indeed, likely to again.

As head of the Church of England – the one true church – I have no hesitation in bestowing my blessing upon you all. As we pray together so shall we die together. God bless you all.”

(Off mike: Where’s that bloody gardener? That lawn’s a disgrace. One has never seen such long fucking blades….”)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Inside my head

I get dozens of ideas for new posts every day. If I really set my mind to it I reckon I could easily produce three or four good ones (my definition) for the next few years.

So why don't I? Usually I compose the posts in my head before I write anything down. Mostly in bed at night, although sometimes when I'm driving in the car. With really good posts - when I think I've come up with something original to say for example - I may not be able to get to sleep trying to get them right. If I think they're funny I'll often burst out laughing as I'm drifting off to sleep - which drives my wife nuts.

In the morning I'll try and remember what I "wrote" the night before while I'm brushing my teeth or - particularly good this one - while having a shower. At this stage I'll sometimes get so excited I barely have time to dry myself down.

Then I'll dash through to my study and switch on the computer. And while it's booting up that's when the trouble usually starts.

Doubt sets in.

Is it really that funny? Am I not just saying that for effect? Is that actually true? Am I telling them only what they want to hear? Isn't that me just showing off? They'll see what I'm up to with that one. What if they don't like it? I'm just trying to manipulate them again.

So before logging into my blog I'll have a look at what's in the news. And I'll read something like that horror story in the Congo. And suddenly I'll feel so small, and self-indulgent and egocentric and, above all, irrelevant.

And I won't post that day after all.

Rape as a weapon of mass destruction

There's an article in the Guardian about the use of rape as a political weapon in the Congo. Some of the stories are so horrific they are almost unreadable. Death, murder and mutilation are commonplace. This is truly a nightmare world. It's almost impossible to comprehend how human beings can behave this way.

Somebody tell me what we can do about this. Please.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Monday morning.

Cold. Clear blue sky. Sun shining. Renewal. Hope.

Life begins again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Monday, Monday

Usually, what I do on a Monday morning is flit around those blogs I like to visit and see what "witty" Comments I've left the night before.

That's because normally on a Sunday night I have a lovely meal accompanied by lots of wine and then go upstairs and spend an hour or more surfing the blogosphere and dispensing my "wit" in the Comments section of a variety of lucky recipients. Next day I mostly can't remember where I've been or what I've said.

I won't have to bother tomorrow, though, because for some reason I'm so depressed tonight that I couldn't crack a joke to save my life. I know this isn't what you want to hear but you need to know that sometimes things get pretty bleak. And I've got it easy. For most people alive in the world today it's much, much tougher. Not exactly a bundle of laughs.

Sometimes, sitting here in the half darkness alone in my room is the saddest place in the whole world. I don't know if it's me, or the state of the world or the sheer utter bloody pointlessness of it all but...I dunno, sometimes the emptiness, the desolate state of my harrowing.

Please don't leave a Comment to this post. I don't want - or need - sympathy or understanding. I just want you to know that it isn't all a bundle of laughs.

Bits and bobs

Not long after I started this blog I hit on the idea of running a competition as a publicity gimmick. The competition was called "The International Bookreader Awards" and the object was to write a review of any online novel. To my surprise - and delight - several people took it seriously. There were two winners. One was a guy called Lance Panzer, an American. He writes erotic Gothic fiction, a genre about which I know next to nothing other than that it appears to be thriving.

Lance used his prizemoney to take out an add in the magazine Gothic Beauty promoting his novel Vampire Seductress . You can take a look at his book here. A copy of the magazine arrived through the post on Friday from Lance. I'm still working my way through the Total Skull fashion article about the new clothing line from Sheri Moon Zombie. I have to say, Lance, it makes Marks and Spencers look a bit staid.

The other winner of the Bookreader Prize, incidentally, was Carla Nayland. Carla wanted to donate her prize to a mountain rescue organisation. Sadly, I lost the details and then forgot about it. I don't know if Carla still visits this blog (she gave me a lot of help and advice in my early days) but if she does - drop me the details again, Carla, and I'll belatedly forward your prize.

Both John Baker and Debi Alper have written recently about the trafficking of women and young girls that appears to be growing in the world. The Council of Europe has recently drawn up a Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. Shockingly, the UK has so far failed to sign up. You need to write to your MP and protests at this outrage. If you live outside the UK find out what your own country's stance is on this and take appropriate action.

The function of being a child is exactly that. To be a child. Not to be some kind of sex object exploited by parents and a bunch of perverted old men. In different circumstances these could be your sons and daughters. Maybe it could even have happened to you. Let's fight to put an end to this sorry business. Childhood is precious, we must fight to preserve it for everyone.

Friday, November 10, 2006

From penile to senile

The story of my life is mostly of a journey from penile dementia to senile dementia. Which is a pity, really, since I don't like writing about sex.

It's not just the gloopy bits I don't like describing, although as I get older and more fastidious that has become an issue. Hm. Issue's not exactly the right word in this context, is it. Shades of D H Lawrence and loins and all that. Just what I'm trying to avoid in fact.

No, the bit I'm not comfortable with is the mechanical side of sex. You know. Ten minutes earlier you laboriously hauled yourself on top and now your knees hurt and you've burned your elbows on the sheets. Being a gentleman you're trying not to fart out loud in case it destroys the romance of the occasion, even though it's hard to concentrate because you're feeling distinctly peckish and trying vainly to remember what's for dinner.

Meanwhile, as you grind away, the sweat dripping from your brow, your wife (or somebody's wife anyway) lies below you, staring eyelessly upwards, her face wreathed in a rictus smile like weathered concrete, snoring gently.

Maybe it's me. But I just can't write about such a scene as if it's the equivalent to being transported to Heaven while listening to Beethoven's Fifth. For me it's more Barry Manilow after a Chinese meal. Him being the one who's had the meal.

I guess I'll just have to draw a discreet veil over my sex life then, much like the Victorians did covering up the legs of their pianos.

Fuck knows what that's going to leave me to write about though. Not that you care. It's not your problem, is it.

Three wishes

Used to play this game as a kid. Didn't you? Being a smartarse I used to say "Wish number one: that all my wishes would come true". Neat, huh. But some adult told me that was cheating. How is it cheating? Spoilsport.

Anyway, I found myself wondering, while taking a break from reading Derec Jones' The Three Bears, how my wishes have changed over the years. Here's the result (without cheating):

At age 9

1 I wish I had a proper mum like everyone else
2 I wish I had a proper two-wheeler bike with straight handlebars
3 I wish I could fly

At age 12

1 I wish my dad was still alive
2 I wish I could kiss Betty Campbell
3 I wish I was back in Tilbury

At age 17

1 I wish my dad was still alive
2 I wish I could be a writer
3 I wish I could feel Maureen Jones

At age 21

1 I wish I could be a famous writer
2 I wish I could shag that tall brunette over there
3 I wish I had a bigger dick

At age 30

1 I wish I could get published
2 I wish I was twenty-one again
3 I wish I'd never given that personal guarantee for £4million

At age 40

1 I wish my kids grow up happy
2 I wish I was rich
3 I wish I was happy

At age 50

1 I wish I knew what life was all about
2 I wish I was thirty again
3 I wish I could get an agent

At age 58

1 I wish someone would shoot all these fucking celebrities
2 I wish people didn't drop litter
3 I wish I was 65 and retired

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How long is a blog

Okay, having suffered an humiliating reverse (someone even shoved a dead sheep through my e-mail) in my attempt to retire from active blogging I've decided I might as well apply some scientific/actuarial principles and try and work out how long this blog is actually going to last. Or to put it another way, how long a sentence I've got to serve now I know I'm not even going to be eligible for parole.

We're doing this for humanitarian reasons remember. I must have some hope of release otherwise I'll die very quickly of despair and that won't do either of us much good.

Right, given that this blog is entirely about me and my ego the maximum lenth of time it can last is 58 years, given that that is my age.

From the maximum term we must deduct the following:

The time I've already spent blogging about myself - 1 year.
The first three years of my life before my memory developed.
The eighties, during which nothing of any interest happened to me.
1967-69 when I was so pissed I've forgotten it all.
That three months when I worked in Germany as a student which I would get locked up for if anyone found out about what I got up to.
The time I've been asleep - about 19 years.
The time I've spent having sex when I'm not going to tell you who or what I've been thinking about - about two years
Ditto for wanking - about five years
The time I spent in education when my mind was mostly a blank - about 17 years
Ditto the time I've spent in management meetings - seven years
The time I've spent on housework - about three weeks
The time I've spent fishing - about three years
The time I've spent lusting after other women - no, forget that one. I will tell you all about that.
The bits I compress for dramatic effect - say three years
The bits I embellish for humorous effect - add back in ten years
The lying bits - add back in seven years
Holidays - add back one year
Sickness (am I allowed to be sick?) if yes, subtract five months
Lack of proper editing leading to long, convoluted and possibly even ungrammatical prose that takes three times as long to say something that could equally well be expressed in a short, pithy phrase - say five years

So what does that leave? Some of these things are concurrent of course (just like a real prison sentence) but by my calculations I make it I've got four years to play with.

Four more years of this. Geez, and you wonder why I get depressed.

More on less

Hm. Okay, I admit it. I feel like the kid who's taken his ball away. And there I was thinking I was doing you a favour.

I didn't take the decision to stop blogging lightly. However, I will admit that in a sense I've taken away from you something I don't really own - your right to stop reading this blog when YOU decide you've had enough. I guess that's why you're all pissed off with me.

All right. Here's the new deal then. I won't stop at the end of November. BUT I'm not undertaking to continue blogging indefinitely - or even very regularly either. Right, happy now? Or do you want a minimum number of words/ideas/jokes/rants a day written into this unwritten contract which I didn't know I had? What are your obligations by the way? Come to that, what do I get out of all this?

I've talked about the tyranny of readers before. You know who you are. This is worse than being married.

Is it all right if I leave the keyboard for five minutes and go to the lavatory? Yes, I'll wash my hands afterwards. Okay, okay I promise not to abscond. Gosh, look outside. The sun is shining. I bet it's nice out there. I wonder if the birds are singing. Sigh. I guess I'll never know.

PS Don't think you've heard the last of this either. I'll get my own back - you wait and see.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Great stats

There's nothing better in blogging* than checking out your stats (ask me if you don't know how to check mine) and seeing that someone has spent a lot of time reading your blog.

Today was a particularly good day over on A Half Life of One, my online novel. Two people popped by earlier and between them spent over 200 minutes reading the book. One has to assume they weren't doing so because they hated it. The best thing of all is if they read it right to the end. That kind of makes it all worthwhile.

*Almost as good is people leaving Comments. Comments are a good thing in blogging. The more the merrier, the greater the satisfaction. More about Comments tomorrow.

The history boy - final part

If I'd taken the trouble to study the syllabus I might have known there'd be a problem. Twentieth century novelists were my passion. Okay, I loved Shakespeare, admired Ben Johnson, Marlowe, could see the point of Edmund Spenser and laughed at Thomas Kyd. But sixteenth century Scottish writers - it just wasn't my thing.

And it got worse during the third term. I'd gone to university to study English because I wanted to be a writer. Okay, I know I was being naive and that there isn't necessarily any connection between the study and the practice. No-one else was making the connection either. To make matters worse I was passionate about reading. I loved literature. As it turned out passion and love were about to become proscribed emotions in literary studies. There was, for some reason, a big drive on in the dept to make the study of Eng Lit as scientific as possible. I think they were after credibility. They wanted the study of literature to be taken seriously, like physics or chemistry, be a part of the white hot heat of technology and all that Harold Wilson stuff.

The end came for me at the final lecture of Prof G I Duthie, the retiring Head of Department. Prof Duthie was a noted Shakespearean scholar, widely published, who specialised in textual critiscism. At the end of his passionate and opinionated lecture two hundred students stood to applaud him, me amongst them. We were informed later that if anyone followed his "line" they would be failed in the end of term exams. He was, apparently, old hat. Emotion was out. Structuralism was in. The objective correlative was all the rage. The whole department had turned on the old boy and stabbed him in the back. I viewed them as traitors and treated them with contempt from then onwards.

I clung on to my life as a student for another three years. It was better than working. A lot better than going home. I drank and womanised, living high on my full grant. For some obscure reason I got diverted into Geology and Sociology. In the end I left without a degree, thoroughly disillusioned with life, a failure at twenty-two.

What I didn't know was at that very moment the first oil was being discovered in the North Sea. Americans - Coonasses, roughnecks, roustabouts and toolpushers - were descending on the town in droves, waving their Stetsons in the air. Boom times were coming, fortunes were going to be made, the oil industry was about to transform Aberdeen forever. And I was going to be part of it, right in at the very beginning. Damn, just think of it. If I'd gotten that degree I could have been a teacher, become respectable, made something of my life.

In fact, the only downside to my university education was that it was ten years before I could bear to read a novel again. Not that I had time to read. I was too busy living, riding the whirlwind, prospecting for black gold.

The history boy - part 2

When I got back to my digs in Aberdeen I reached under the bed and pulled out the stash of unopened letters from my mother. Something she had said was preying on my mind. You took the money all right though, didn't you? Inside each envelope was a ten shilling note. There were ten letters. It was a lot of money. I was touched. There was no doubt she loved me dearly, as any mother would. She was proud of me too, I knew that. It wasn't her fault for being the way she was. In truth the faults weren't all on her side. A better son would have made things easier for her. I returned the opened letters to their hiding place unread.

That night I went out and got drunk on my mother's money. Very drunk. When I returned to my digs I walked straight into the glass door in the hallway and knocked myself out. Mrs Macdonald put me to bed. Mrs Macdonald had two grown-up daughters who had now left home. She had taken in two students for the first time that year because she and her husband felt lonely without the girls. Mrs Macdonald adored me. When I was at home she would bring me up a tray with coffee and chocolate biscuits. She fussed over me all the time. I guess I was the son she had always wanted. Although I had started drinking too much and going out with girls she forgave my every transgression, and there were more and more as term progressed. She was like a mother to me. Only better - I mean, not just better than MY mother. Better than ANY mother.

For a while the normalcy of academic life was comforting too. Dr Matthew McDiarmid was my Eng Lit tutor. A small, dapper figure in his early fifties he was formidably erudite. He specialised in 16th Century Scottish poets - the makars -and his three volume tome on Barbour's Bruce is still the standard scholarly edition. I worked hard for him, not just because I was scared of him (he had a withering wit) but because I didn't want to let him down. I couldn't compete in his speciality but nor could he beat me in mine - twentieth century American novelists. It's amazing how often you can slip Hemingway and Dos Passos into a discussion on Sir David Lindsay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis". Runyon, though, was a step too far for the good doctor.

Half way through term Dr McDiarmid invited some of his favourite students to sherry and biscuits at his rather grand house. I was honoured to be invited - I still have the written invitation. Later in the term he suggested I might like to accompany him to the pub to meet his friend Hugh MacDiarmid, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. I'm afraid that I allowed the penniless poet to buy me a drink that night, a man I revered. I'll live with the shame of that mean act forever. Perhaps as a consequence the Gods took revenge upon me because my university career took a turn for the worse almost immediately afterwards.

The history boy - part 1

Seeing Alan Bennet's The History Boys the other week prompted me to look back at my own university experience.

In 1966 I was living with my mother, my aunt, uncle and cousin in a council house in Tranent in East Lothian. At that time it was a small rural town still dominated by the culture of coal mining, the countryside around dotted with shale bings and derelict pits.

I'd managed to get a place at Aberdeen University studying English Literature. At the time around 4% of the population went on to higher education, a small percentage of them from state schools. Aberdeen was the furthest I could get from home while still remaining in Scotland. I never looked at the syllabus, only the geography.

Before I left I went to say goodbye to my mother.

She glared at me, her eyes twinkling with resentment. "I don't know what you're going there for," she said, "University's not for the likes of us."

Auntie Mary was busy in the kitchen, as she always was. "I wish you'd get a proper job instead," was all she said. She looked worried, even more so than usual.

Uncle George carried my suitcase down to the bus stop. It was my mother's old case, the one she took with her whenever she went into mental hospital. It was tied up with string. When the bus came, Uncle George shook my hand and gave me a pound note. He didn't say anything but I felt the weight of expectations resting on my shoulders. I knew I didn't dare screw this up.

Once the train crossed over the Forth Bridge my mood lightened. I was going on an adventure. I was free at last, for the first time in my life. I couldn't wait for the future to arrive.

I worked hard that first term, as it turned out much harder than I needed to. The exams were easy, something of a disappointment in fact. In the end I didn't feel I'd learned as much as I had expected. In hindsight this isn't so surprising since my preconceptions of university life were wildly unrealistic, based almost entirely on Brideshead Revisited. I did make plenty of friends though, despite my shyness. These guys were different from me - all middle class, they were mostly English and self-confident and clever. Consciously I began speaking in a different way, more refined, more like them. I began to believe that I had never been working class at all. I even fantasised that I was a foundling, that one day my real mother and father would turn up and rescue me. Rescue me from what? From myself, I guess.

When I came home at Christmas things were not good. My mother was refusing to come out of her room. She had her meals delivered to her on a tray. Although you never saw her you could hear her through the paper thin walls, continuously rumbling away, bemoaning her fate, cursing the world and everybody in it. Living with her was like living on the side of a volcano. When I visited her she berated me for not answering her letters (it was true; I couldn't bear to open them. I didn't want to be reminded of her). She glared at her reflection in the mirror as she spoke, frantically combing her long black hair, tugging at it, pulling out handfuls. She said she had worried herself sick about me the whole time. It was, as usual, all my fault.

That night I heard her walking around her room. Every fifteen minutes or so I heard the floorboards creak as she crossed the landing to the lavatory. Her presence filled the house like a ghost, a restless, unhappy spirit. This went on all night, the cistern continuously flushing and re-filling. Apparently she had been behaving like this ever since I left.

In the morning when I went to visit her she said she was going to kill herself. She said she couldn't stand the sight of me, to clear off and leave her alone. She wished she'd never had me. She wished she'd never met my father. She wished she'd never been born.

Her behaviour was nothing really new but the intensity was greater than anything I remembered before. I was scared. I decided to get the doctor in. I cycled across to Ormiston and told him what was happening. He came to see my mother in the afternoon. That evening an ambulance arrived to take her away to the mental hospital in Haddington. She screamed at me as she left.

At that time - seven years after he had died - I still believed I had been responsible for my father's death. I had now committed my mother to a mental hospital. I didn't feel like a very loving and dutiful son.

In the middle of January I went back to University but somehow everything had changed. As I crossed the Forth Bridge I stared down at the white horses through rain-lashed grimy windows. What was the point of going back, I thought? What was the point of any of it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How long?

A couple of weeks back Skint Writer posed some interesting questions about why we blog and how long this strange phenomenon will endure.

The Why? part of his question has many answers and I've touched on the subject quite a few times myself in this blog. Other bloggers have brought a different perspective to this question. We all have our reasons.

How long? is also interesting. I guess in part it depends what type of blog you have and what your motivation is. If you're an aggregator type you can continue forever, or at least for as long as you can be bothered combing the blogosphere for interesting items of news, in effect offering a free public service. If you're a commentator, offering an expert assessment of what's going on in your area of expertise, your shelf-life too is also only limited by your tenacity.

In this blog I've gone for something a little different, trying mostly to create original content. Not that original though. To tell the truth, mostly I've been writing about myself, re-cycling my life, my hopes and fears.

And that's all very well. But it's a finite subject and I kind of suspect that you, dear readers, have already had the best of me. As a result I fear that I will soon turn into the party bore, the guy everyone dreads being stuck in the corner with. A rather lame one-trick pony.

So, I've decided that this blog will shortly come to the end of what has proven to be its natural life. At the end of this month to be precise. That's about three weeks time, roughly another twenty posts or so. I'll use the remaining period to examine my successes and failures in blogdom. I'll pass on what I've learned, the pros and the cons of blogging. And, rest assured, there are many, many pros. I'll also have the occasional rant at a few subjects that are still irking me. I might even crack a few jokes.

And at the end of it all we'll have a big blog party, just like we used to do back in the summer.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Pundy House Eventide Home

When you’ve been married as long as we have you develop a private language that isn’t always easy to deconstruct.

It’s the history that obfuscates or, occasionally, elucidates. All those years of hurt, resentment, anger, happiness and, ultimately, disappointment.

Here’s a typical example:

Me (glaring): Have you farted?
The Wife (staring back blankly but boldly): No. I am quiescent, at the moment.

Two things about her reply drive me crazy. First off, there’s only two of us in the room and SOMEONE has farted. Ergo, SOMEONE is lying. Secondly, the quiet malevolence of the phrase “at the moment”. I spend the rest of the evening surreptitiously sniffing the air, my evening ruined, waiting for the next eruption.

My Remembrance Sunday

Both my parents lie in unmarked graves.

My father has lain in anonimity for the past 47 years. I don't know why my mother erected no headstone. It is likely the organisation of a memorial would have been beyond her at the time. Probably she couldn't afford it. My one and only visit to his grave was in 1984, the 25th anniversary of his death. The graveyard in urban Essex was bleak and unfriendly. It took me a long time to track down his grave. I found him surrounded by upturned gravestones and graffitti. Nearby was a rusting, abandoned pram. I knelt beside him and asked for his forgiveness, told him how much I loved him, how desperately I missed him. I knelt until my knees hurt and longer. I have never felt so desolate, before or since. I cried uncontrollably. Later, on the train back to London, I decided against putting up a headstone. I wanted to leave him undisturbed, at peace. The peace my mother had denied him in life.

My mother died four years ago. She lies in an unmarked grave that overlooks the River Spey, a beautiful setting. My decision not to erect a headstone is probably motivated mainly by vindictiveness and spite. Or maybe revenge. Whatever the reason, I want to forget her, not remember her. That's why I'm writing a book about her, a desperate attempt to expunge her memory.

I imagine I am the last person alive who remembers my father. I think about him often, always fondly. When I die all trace of him will be erased from this earth, as if he had never lived. That doesn't seem right. My mother, on the other hand, must be remembered by as many as a dozen people, twice as many as attended her funeral. I suppose not all of them feel bitterness towards her. She had some friends, although they didn't attend the funeral.

I think the looming shadow of mortality is one of the reasons I write. I want to leave something behind, some fading memory of me that will outlast my immediate family and friends. I don't want to inherit the anonimity that shrouds my father. My beloved father. Maybe through my writing his memory will live on a little longer.

I owe him that at least.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A postscript on blog marketing

In a recent post I said that the way to build up a widely-read blog was simple - provide good content. That is still the fundamental quality required of any successful blog. Of course, it still pays to advertise your blog, especially if you want to accelerate your brand recognition.

Here are a couple of the ways I've tried to advertise this blog.

1 Everybody's favourite - leave Comments on other people's blogs. This really works provided your Comments are meaningful or witty or preferably both. The recipient will eventually check back to see who you are. This tactic has the immense benefit in that it allows you to target your potential re-visitors. I only leave Comments on blogs I like, written by people I admire. People that will add something to my blog if they ever pop over here.

2 Every now and again I write a Post that I think might interest more people than simply my current readership. The post titled "Publication date for my new novel" which I wrote a few days back was just such a post. In fact, I wrote it deliberately with the idea of leveraging it into a marketing tool. I chose the subject (writing) and the treatment (humorous) deliberately. As a result, once I'd published it on my blog I was able to send out an e-mail teaser (title: Writer employs scientific method to determine publication date of new novel) to nine A-listers in the literary blogosphere. Why nine? Well, I knew that what I was doing was pretty close to spamming so I justified my actions by restricting my campaign to only nine recipients. Such a small number couldn't really be spam, could it? Okay, I spammed them. Sometimes a marketeer just has to do what...

Two literary bloggers picked up on the story, not a bad hit rate. Bookninja was first. Within minutes of their publishing a link to my blog I started getting visitors from Canada where Bookninja is based. About fifty over a two day period. Bookninja described the Post as very funny and - somewhat inaccurately - reported that I was a "young writer". I'm fifty-eight years old and my picture leers out at anyone who visits the blog. Maybe I am still young in terms of what I've actually published. Still in the womb in fact.

A few days later POD-dy Mouth responded to my e-mail and posted up a link and I received another sixty or so visitors over the next couple of days. The day after that Amazon's Bookstore Blog (no, I didn't know they had one either) picked up on the Bookninja story and pointed out that I was anything but young (thanks Amazon). That brought me another twenty or so visitors. Finally, the Grumpy Old Bookman plugged the story yesterday (he was on my original e-mail list) and that's probably why you're reading this now.

So, quite a lot of leverage for one post. It remains to be seen how sticky the Post proves to be but if history is any guide I'm sure a few of those new readers will hang around if I continue to deliver the goods in terms of content.

Oh, then I had another idea. I thought the Post - which was humorous and book-related - might be of interst to people in the book trade, where I definitely need to raise my profile. So I sent the e-mail teaser out to half a dozen agents and a couple of publishers. Well, you never know, do you. No response from any of them as yet but...nothing ventured, nothing gained. And I've hardly got anything to lose.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Gnat Speaks

I have the attention span of a gnat with attention deficit disorder. In fact, I'm so badly afflicted by the prediliction it'll be a miracle if I finish this post.

Considering my shortcomings it is a tribute to how good a writer she is therefore that I have stuck with Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin up to page 353, which is where I am right now. I might even finish the book, even though it's 640 pages long. I like Attwood a lot. Most of all I like her fierce intelligence, her belligerence, her intolerance of fools and the vividness and originality of her imagination. When you put it all together she comes out as a formidably good writer. I wish I could write like that.

Her novel is full of insights and brilliant observations but one in particular has given me much pause for thought recently. "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read".

It's true. And it's one of the problems with blogging. In the old days (two years ago) a writer sat alone in the hermetic fastness of her room and penned her masterpiece, safe in the knowledge that it would be at least two years, if ever, before anyone would get the chance to comment on her innermost written thoughts. This interlude, this time lent distance. Distance inspired bravery. Bravery begat truth.

Blogging isn't like that. Your readers are on the other side of a paper thin wall. responses are immediate. Relationships are forged. Feelings are taken into account. Somewhere the truth gets lost.

Or if not lost at least spun slowly on its axis. We know who our readers are and we know what they want. Worse still, they know who we are. In some cases, better than we do ourself.

Ground down by familiarity and friendship we give them what they want to hear.

Or maybe you're braver than that. Some bloggers are, I know. I'm not sure I am one of them.