Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why does this blogger blog?

I should write something about why I decided to start this blog and what I hope to accomplish.  It’s probably a question you’ve all been asking yourselves if you’ve waded through any of the earlier entries. 
I’ve been trying semi-seriously to write creatively since last year.  It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while and so finally decided to make time to get stuck in.  I do write quite a lot in my job(s) but detailed technical specifications, business cases, appraisals and endless emails weren’t really stimulating my creative juices.  Or those of the recipients, no doubt, but that’s by the by.  Actually making progress on the creative stuff is proving harder than I expected.
One problem that I have with trying to write anything of any length is that I get dragged into the detail before I even start.  By way of an example, a couple of months ago I was trying to write a Christmas ghost story.  I didn’t want it to be too long or heavy, just a bit of pre-celebration fun to mail out to people.  It was set around an old abandoned church that had stuck in my imagination about 15 years ago.  I had something of an idea of the plot but the church itself needed to be almost a character in its own right.  I needed a really strong sense of place to anchor the whole piece, before I even really fleshed out the characters, and so I looked at various Wikipedia entries on Church architecture of the appropriate period.  I then looked at various websites for real Churches around the country, pinching the bits of architecture that I needed, looking up the architects that would have built them, working out how long it would have taken to erect it and so on.   It took a couple of nights to get all this information together.  And so it started...
“Every church has its congregation.  All Souls was no different.  It sat amidst a sprawling and overgrown cemetery, a jumble of angels, cast iron railings, tombs and meandering paths that made mock of whatever plan had been originally conceived for it by its Victorian architects. “
And then when I got a little further into the story I realised I needed the Church to be about 70 years older.  Regency, rather than Victorian and so all the Gothic revival detail that I’d described later in the story was wrong and I needed to start again.  By this time all my enthusiasm had ebbed away.  I’ve also got a load of ‘post-it’ notes all over the whiteboard behind me in my study, looking over my shoulder, as I type this.  They’re the story arcs for a play/screenplay, a ‘Wheedonesque’ rom-com that I’ve been kicking round in my head for about 5 years.  So far, aside from a couple of synopses, spreadsheets and timelines, there’s nothing at all.  This is a shame because I think it’s structurally really sound and could be a lot of fun.
I find it very difficult to write shorter pieces as well.  I’ve been fiddling with various poems around for about nine months now, but only finished about seven or eight.  There are about another thirty in various stages of progress and a large document full of snippets and the seeds of others.  And poems don’t need any research, plotting, characters and characterisation – they just pour out of the wellspring of the soul, or something (pass me the laudanum Byron), so they should be easy to write, right?  Except of course they aren’t.  For a start I really need to be in the right mood to get anything on paper that I like.  And then it’s so hard to know when they’re done.  The more you edit and add to them, the more they squat lifelessly on the page, the extra verbiage weighing them down rather than setting them free to fly.  So some nights you sit there and nothing comes.  And others you sit there, work for an hour and end up deleting all your changes.  I’m sure Tupac and Biggie didn’t have these problems.
Anyway, I thought that the brevity, frivolity and disposability of a blog might help me to get some pieces finished.  That writing about little events or ideas as they occurred would keep me interested enough to jot them down.  That publishing, even to a small audience, would make sure I actually drew the line at some point and declared ‘finished’.   And that the discipline of trying to write a couple of entries a week would be good practise for knuckling down and churning the words out. 
It’s not working out as easily as I’d hoped.  I’d envisaged turning out each blog in a single draft.  The poet Norman MacCaig (very well worth a look if you don’t know him) used to claim he knocked out a poem in “the time it takes to smoke two cigarettes” and I’m very taken with this idea.  I like the idea of the spontaneity, each thought like a piece of red hot iron pulled from a kiln that has to be hammered into shape quickly, before it hardens into immutability.  It’s not really working for me though.  This stuff (believe it or not) is the edited version.  I’m not a good enough writer to get it down first time.  Or second.  So they’re taking ages to write, re-write and edit. Heat and hammer.
The other problem is that it’s hard to pin down what I think.  An opinion tossed out in conversation is often forgotten at the end of the next sentence.  Anything I write here will stick around for a while and so I want to be comfortable that first of all I’m really clear in myself with what I’m trying to say and secondly it’s something I can justify if challenged.  Not that I plan to go out on any limbs or upset anyone but if I’m going to open myself up at all then I want to be sure that it really is me, not just me posturing, saying something for effect or going for cheap shocks or laughs.  And so when I hop aboard my train of thought it seems to take a more roundabout route and a lot longer to get to its destination that I expected.  My brain, it seems, does not working in straight lines.  And has leaves on the line, is susceptible to the wrong kind of snow and is plagued by industrial action.  Let's leave that metaphor in a siding.
So, those are the reasons I’m writing a blog.  I’ve no idea what your reasons for reading it are.  It’s probably a dull afternoon at work.  Sorry if I’ve not enlivened it up a little more.  I do keep meaning to write something that’s supposed to be funny, but I’ve not managed it yet.   I will do.  Promise.

David Millington
29th January 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lessons on the Cosmique Arete

"Oh you bastard, don't do this to me now... Shitshitshitshit...!"

It's a burst of earthy Anglo-Saxon delivered at high volume to a small international audience of on-looking bemused guides and clients. Not the sort of language you'd expect to hear in such a beautiful place but I'm not happy and I don't care who knows it. I'm on the hardest section of the hardest Alpine route I've ever done, one move from the top, and I can't get my foot onto the hold because the crampon on my right boot has snagged itself on my gaiter.

read the rest – with pictures here...

(This has already been published on the UKClimbing website but I thought I’d link through to it from here so everything’s accessible from one place...)

253 worlds on the London Underground

I joined a book club earlier this month.  This is a first for me.  Partly because I’ve not been asked before (shame on you all J) and partly because I’ve always got such a huge pile of stuff I want to read and so I’ve not been keen to add a bunch of other books that I might not like the look of.  Anyway, at the first meeting we came up with a list of interesting offerings.   And, thanks to the book club, for the last week or so I’ve been reading ‘253’ by Geoff Ryman.  And it’s really really good. 
Picture a London tube train on the Bakerloo line.  There are 7 carriages rattling through the warm darkness.  Each carriage seats 32 people and so in a beautifully efficient world, including the driver, you’d have 253 passengers on the train.  Each passenger is given one page.  Each page has 253 words about that passenger (the copious, entertaining and enlightening footnotes don’t count toward this total).  For each passenger we are told about their outward appearance, inside information about that person and then what they are thinking and doing.  The events of the book take place over the course of a journey from Embankment to the Elephant and Castle, which is a journey of about seven and a half minutes.  And that’s it. 
The idea is a nice one.  It’s a game we’ve all played when sitting on the tube, on buses and planes, when standing in line at a supermarket checkout.  It’s one of the first pleasures of going into town on the bus for a night out, imagining where your fellow passengers are heading.  The old man, who only rides for a couple of stops, then eases his body down the aisle and to the same pub he’s drunk at since he was a boy.  The young smudge-eyed emo kids in their painstakingly assembled black splendour, off to hang out with their tribe, all the school bullying forgotten about at least for tonight.  The middle aged man, shined clean shoes and aftershave, fingers drumming on the hand rail – maybe tonight’s the night – never quite stops hoping. 
It’s an easy game to play once or twice but it’s potentially a really hard one to pull off over the length of a novel.  Ryman manages it brilliantly.  There is an overarching narrative here (which I won’t spoil) but each person’s story is beautifully self contained, although some of the passengers know each other and so we get another side of some stories.  He brings each of the 253 people, incidentally including a pigeon and the ghost of William Blake, to life.  Some stories are funny, some inspiring, some deeply melancholy and affecting.  Working with his stricture of 253 words per person forces him to be focussed and yet also gives each entry a poetic, lyrical quality.  Each word must be carefully chosen and each phrase and sentence telling.  I suppose the book is reminded me most of is ‘Sharp Teeth’ by Toby Barlow, another urban tale told in blank verse that uses elements of magical realism to both transport you and to ground you deeply in the reality of other people’s lives.
It’s just as well we can only see the outsides of each other and only ever glimpse a fraction of what a person is.  People are like icebergs, their physical selves bobbing out of the water, onto bus seats, passing us in the street, stood next to us at the bar.  We never really glimpse the totality of what they are.  We can live with people all our lives, family, friends, lovers and never see all of what lies between the water.  Just as well too.  It’d be dizzying, numbing, arresting, endlessly fascinating.  Too much empathy, like an inverse autism, would be equally difficult to live with.
Ryman’s book does show us a little of what it might be like to have this omniscience and it’s a terrific trip.  But it’s good to know that you can put the blinkers back on and sit back on the bus and keep things simple.  Scary looking guy (possible trouble), pretty girl (ah, if only), strange person (don’t sit next to me, don’t sit next to me, don’t sit next to me, phew!), cocky young guy (you’ll grow old like the rest of us sunshine) and here’s my stop.  Time to get off, go home and shut the world out.
David Millington
26th January 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

Looking for a new England

To the best of my recollection, it’s been 17 years since I first saw Billy Bragg and about 14 years since I last saw him.  From the looks of the crowd that are in tonight I’m both something of a late comer and a casual fan.  While there are a few fresh faced students in the crowd, getting their first introduction to the Billy Bragg live experience, most people seem to be grizzled veterans of his shows and probably a protest or ten.  Many of the people here tonight look to march to the beat of their own drummer and you get the impression that they know all the words, perhaps better than Bill himself who has to be reminded once or twice.  It’s Billy, it’s early in the tour, no-one minds.
I’ve loved him since I bought ‘Workers Playtime’ in 1988 with no idea of who he was, following of all things a fine review in Q Magazine, that bastion of left wing thought and left field music.  I can’t remember too much about the review but one passage that has stayed with me said something like ‘This collection of personal love songs shows that while politics can disappoint you and make you angry, only love can break your heart.’  Since those young days he’s been a good companion when learning to live with, or try to live with, both.  One of the things that I love about Billy is that he’s still writing and singing about both with as much passion as when he started out.  He opens tonight with ‘To have and have not’, first written in the early 1980’s mourning a generation of school leavers on the scrap heap.  It’s full of Billy’s trademark mix of compassion, empathy and anger and sounds eerily up to date.  He finishes with ‘New England’, probably his best know song, even if it’s Kirsty MaColl’s cover that’s better remembered.  The crowd sing along from the first song to the last, Billy sometimes reduced to our accompanist.
I tend not to watch many established bands.  I much prefer groups and performers who are in their first couple of years of life.  I like not knowing quite what to expect from a band.  I like the energy, the optimism, the sense of possibility that young bands can have.  I like that they feel that they can take over the world.  I like it that they can pick you up and carry you along with them, at least for the duration of the set, before setting you down, a little sweatier, a little deafer and with your footsteps  a little lighter.  I can catch a reflection of a part of myself that I forget exists in their wide eyes.  And, more prosaically, usually a band’s best material is at the start of their career.  Maybe it’s the group dynamic within a band that changes and makes it hard for them to sustain their creativity.  Maybe they get complacent.  Maybe they just run out of things to say and things to care about.
Billy Bragg wasn’t my favourite singer when I was a teenager.  I loved the Pixies, Morrissey, The Stone Roses, The Wonder Stuff, The Pale Saints, The Boo Radleys and lots of others.  And where are they now?  Some have disappeared into the real world.  Some have disappeared into irrelevance, whatever spark used to animate them has gone out and left their creative peak receding into the distance along with their hairlines. 
Some tour their greatest hits, hoping for a new generation to take them to their bosom, for their old songs to find new life in young ears.  That doesn’t seem to happen very often though and I don’t want to watch overweight and balding men in sagging t-shirts playing to an audience of similarly timeworn punters.  The songs and the band mattered to us then because we all had the world at our feet.  We were all young and brilliant and beautiful then and we came together to celebrate our triumphs and losses.  Now it’s just a reminder of our vanished salad days and a surrender to getting old and to nostalgia.  The word nostalgia comes from two Greek words, the word ’nostros’ for ‘coming home’, and ‘algos’, meaning ‘ache’ or ‘pain’.  It’s a seductive emotion but we shouldn’t give into it.  We shouldn’t be looking forlornly over our shoulders, looking for a place that we’ve lost.  The best days are the ones to come and it’s up to us to make sure that’s the case. 
Billy Bragg is a great antidote to this.  He’s a performer and a man who’s remained fully engaged in the same causes and passions that animated him in his youth.  That most provincial of accents still conveys the most universal of truths about life and love.  That life was not better in the past and that it’s still difficult now, but that we can, should, must struggle to make it better.  And that love is still the only thing that can truly break your heart or make you feel at your most alive.  You owe it to everyone to never give up on trying to make the world a fairer and better place and you owe it to yourself to never give up on love, whether you’re still missing relationship or whether it’s making the relationship you’re in as full of sparking fire as when you first met.
It’s easy to be cynical Billy tells us and he’d have every right to be so.  He’s a man who campaigned and promoted tactical voting between Lib Dem and Labour to keep the Tories in opposition and we know how that turned out.  But he’s right.  If we can’t make the future better than the past then we’ve only ourselves to blame.  As we all sing along to the last song I realise where I’m going wrong.  “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, just looking for another girl”.  And for the first time in a long time I do want to change the world, to find a new England.  And I still am looking for another girl.
David Millington
December 2010/January 2011

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mute Swans - Glee, Swan Lake and what dance is for...

It’s fair to say I have a bit of a problem with musical drama.   I love them both on their own but it seems to me that when they’re combined you get something that’s less than the sum of its parts, the one distracting from the other.  It’s a very tough art form to get right and I think that most modern musicals don’t even try, just using the plot as an excuse to stitch together some popular songs that are guaranteed to put bums on seats.  I’d cite season one of Glee as an example of this, the first half was story driven and slotted songs seamlessly in, each song working as a performance on its own merits but also informing us about the characters and allowing them to develop.  The second half pretty much abandoned this formula by ‘themeing’ each episode around a particular artist and throwing away any notions of characterisation (note the way the characters seem to love each other one week and hate each other the next as the plot requires – there’s no continuity or overall dramatic arc).  I’d say the first half of the season was miles better than the second.
So it was with the usual trepidation that I went along to see the St Petersburg ballet company’s production of Swan Lake at the Royal Centre in Nottingham last week.  The story itself is a very simple one we’ve heard a hundred times before.  The usual affair of boy meets girl, girl turns into swan due to a curse that can only be broken by a declaration of love, evil wizard sends doppelganger of girl to Prince to trick him, Prince declares love to the wrong girl, girl dies and Prince dies of a broken heart.  Ok, so maybe not a hundred times before.  Still, it’s a thin tale to hang a couple of hours of theatre from.  And in fairness they don’t really try.  This is dance and it’s about the movement of the performers to the music.  If you want a complex plot, go and watch Chinatown.  The first act in each half takes place in a palace with a ball and this structural device allows various groups of people to enter, to do a ‘turn’ and then to stand around decorating the set while the next lot do their thing.  It’s a very effective device and if anything is less obtrusive than the sort of inexplicable bursting into song that you get in many musicals.  The other acts take place at the lake and allow the female members of the company to do their thing.  Again, the company did portray something of the elegance of the swans they represented and also a little of their fussiness. 
The ballet does save the best until last.  The fourth act is dramatically the most satisfying with a strong focus on the tragedy of the main story.  It also has the best tunes.  It builds up to the famous ‘dying swan’ routine and it was only seeing the Prince and Swan Princess dance together that really drew me into the story.  The contrast between the power and control of the male dancer and the grace and poise of the female dancer was wonderful to watch as the two of them moved as one, split, came back together and flowed around the stage.  It reminded me that, at the most wonderful or tragic moments in our lives, words are useless and that the only comfort is to hold someone close. I really felt at this point that I was seeing something that could be best conveyed in dance and that words, however well chosen, would only get in the way.
As a footnote, this bit of blogging has taken me much longer to write than I expected. I did feel for much of the evening as though I was watching a sport to which I didn’t know the rules.  It’s all very slickly done and you can appreciate the physical difficulty of what they’re doing but it’s hard to know which details of the performance are the telling ones.  It’s also hard to be drawn into the story.  I suppose I’m used to focusing on the verbal elements of plot and character with the performance just existing to serve those elements.  A ballet, of course, takes all that away for you.    I’ve gone through a number of drafts and with each one I’ve had to think again about what I saw and what I felt about it.  It’s made me reassess the ballet and made me appreciate it much more than I did at the time.  I still think I’m a long way from understanding the rules, but I think that I want to make the effort.  And that’s not a bad result for the St Petersburg ballet now is it?
David Millington.
Nottingham, 17th January 2011.