It occurs to me that the act of writing causes a certain shift in one’s point of perspective. It’s a kind of ‘alternative’ reality which, if pursued, creates a very real world to exist side-by-side with one’s own daily waking life. The characters one might concoct present themselves as very solid entities, as real as any ‘actual person’ you might know and their activities and episodes appear in the mind as memories, such as if they had really happened and been told to you by a close friend.
For my part, I ‘sense’ these people with an intimate understanding. I smell their clothes, I know their innermost desires and I see their faces with a disturbing clarity which haunts me to the point of distraction as I fear their pitfalls and misfortunes and rejoice in their conquests and glory. They are the ‘voices’ in my head which accompany me to my every daily task. Commenting and observing all that I do, each with their own particular perspective on my actions.
I wonder, therefore, if these beings represent aspects of my own personality or whether (as I suspect, may be the case) they are distinctive and possible ‘other’ variants of my current being. Perhaps: parallel universes in which I might have developed, given different life circumstances which leads me to wonder -precisely “who are we”?
When we sit, alone in our private spaces and look out into the world, just ‘who’ is it that is observing? Surely, all that we are right now is the culmination of all the incidents and accidents of our ‘actual’ time in this life, on this little rock hurtling through space. We are shaped by serendipity into an amalgamation of all the reactions to life’s various moments into a cohesive unit of behavioural patterns. Tried and tested activity which we are compelled to follow as a sense of ‘identity’. But what if it were different? How might our person be shaped by the restraint of not only our own, but others expectations of who we purport to be?
I know, from the scrutiny of my own ghosts that every situation has a multitude of possible reactions which might be played out, and it is inevitable that we follow those which are most familiar to us. The path of least resistance perhaps, and indeed the ones which we are most comfortable with regardless of whether it is the ‘right’ course of action. There is no ‘right and wrong’ in this instance, it is simply our etherical ‘self image’ which drives us to follow the well trodden paths which validate and reinforce that ‘character’ which we have created and know of as: ourself.
So, what then of fiction? What of these so-called ‘real’ beings that from the writer’s pen dance scenarios of existential truths before our minds eye? Are they no less real than your next-door neighbor in your own mind? No. Only by an arbitrary decision based on provable fact can we dismiss these phantoms as shadows, passing clouds with no more substance than fanciful vapour. However, in our reveries they gather and collude and gain form which has a mass equal to, if not greater than, the ‘actual’ people we know and the things they did.
This then, is the magic that writers weave. They are in that context, liars of the highest order. Spinning a vast tableaux of intricate untruths that we gaze upon, and the greater the liar - the more we are drawn in to their vistas with the conviction that these events were real and that these figures actually lived and breathed. Which for us, is a relief as we suspend disbelief and share with them their fireside fantasies. In doing so, we are released from the mundane perpetuity of our own little lives, if only for a moment. But for a writer, this congregation of almost ‘sentient’ beings is a collective cloud of presence which follows them at every turn.
Part 1. When new technology was made from wood.
Walking around any electrical retail outlet is not only an experience in consumerism, it is a glimpse at where we are as a culture. The new devices and gizmos on offer promise us a ‘new experience’ in entertainment, but are they simply changing or enhancing the way that we ‘receive’ these messages, or are they (as some would say) changing the message itself?
We expect our new wide screen televisions and mp3 players to be built from plastic, metal and glass but there was a time when all of this was almost exclusively made from wood. TVs, radios, record players, tape recorders and indeed all electronic items were neatly housed in decorative cabinets of polished wood that didn’t look out of place amongst the furniture, but just how has this transition shaped the way that we interact with these items.
Canadian philosopher (and media theorist) Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1962 that the development of communication technology significantly affects cognitive organisation, which in turn has an impact on social behaviour. That was in his ground breaking book: “The Gutenberg Galaxy” but he went on to explore those ‘milepost’ triggers by writing: “The medium is the massage” (sic) in which he stipulated that the means of communication were often more significant than the message (or massage) itself. In other words: the way that the idea was presented to us affected and altered our perception of it and that, in many ways, we tend to become more concerned (or connected) with the method rather than the idea behind it.
When electrical items were made from wood they had a warm, homely appeal to them and if you open up one of these vintage items you can often see the signature, or names of the people who built them, written on slips of paper glued to the back of the lid. It reminded us that this thing was built by a person for a person and that they somehow, in the capacity of quality control, had your entertainment pleasure in mind when they signed it off.
In the early days, televisions and radios were huge, heavy affairs. They were bulky, heavy and dominated any room they were in. They worked with large glass valves the size of light bulbs, and listening to a show or watching a programme involved allowing the set time to ‘warm up’ before it would operate properly. It was an ‘event’. An event that the whole family would gather around to share and experience together.
Even when the 1960s dawned and the new influx of (so called) ‘portable’ entertainment systems arrived: the transistor radio and the record player, they were still built out of wood and this tradition continued right into the 1970s where all the most highly regarded items were made from teak or beechwood, but their ‘cheaper counterparts’ were almost always made from plastic.
Towards the end of the 60s, Bob Moog invented a musical keyboard that produced a sound entirely created from the manipulation of electrical signals (called a ‘synthesizer’) and it heralded the dawn of a new futuristic age in music. It could be heard on all the science fiction films of the time and its ‘space age’ connotations were intrinsic and indeed integral to its success. But in spite of the availability of plastic and metal as a construction material, he chose wood for it’s exterior styling.
Perhaps the use of wood makes us regard those items as more ‘solid’ or ‘grounded’. In a sense: more permanent and trustworthy. Maybe it taps in to our primeval past. Or does it take us back to a time when technology was accessible, a time when we ‘sort of’ understood how things worked. The plastic disc with the grooves worked because we put a needle into them and when it spun round it vibrated and played our favorite song. It was a ‘bridge’ to the sounds. With an mp3 player for example- when the device is switched off the music ceases to exist in many ways. There’s no tangible evidence that it is still there.
One thing’s for certain though: we won’t see the return of the wooden car. And perhaps that’s a good thing.
One of the grestest comedians of all time has to be Ireland’s: David Allen. -
He was the defining factor, in my thirteenth year, to not only- question everything, but also to explore the ‘absurd’.
The preceeding essay: “The Last Man Standing” was a tribute, a re-telling if you like of a David Allen story of the mid seventies. God Bless him, an unsung genius.
Cynics and enthusiasts alike always say “there’s a book in every one of us” and maybe they’re right. However, getting it out of the grey matter and into black and white is a whole other skill. One which many never bother to explore. I wonder just how many great novels have been lost this way.
Some can do it instinctively: “During the rainy summer of 1816, the “Year Without a Summer,” the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 18, and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors until dawn. Amongst other subjects, the conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life, and to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale. Shortly afterwards, in a waking dream, Mary Godwin conceived the idea for Frankenstein” - Wikipedia.
And to this day, it remains an organic, perfectly conceived piece of story telling. All the ingredients nicely interwoven with all the right degrees of plot development: “Man plays God, looses girl, looses mind, creates a monster” - no happy endings there. Just the yearning, loose ends that leave the reader craving answers.
But for the rest of us, bereft of inspired conversation (and copious quantities of opiates!) how can we possibly achieve the mammoth task of creating a world into which we draw our readers and convince them that our vistas and characters are real and not just inconsistent ramblings of our own confused imagination. I feel it is done by (in some ways) truly getting behind the lines. Digging deep beneath the soil on which the story tree grows. And in that world we must live, observing those scenes, and living out the lives of each of the disparate character’s most innermost thoughts. We ‘are’ that world, we ‘are’ each one of those personalities and if we are to convincingly portray them in a narrative, we must be able to have all the linear facts to hand. Instinctively.
The bigger question is to do with marketing. Publishers have a bad habit of speaking about ‘the product’ and ‘formatting’. In other words: they are selling a ‘product’ and that product is a ‘concept’ which they have to understand so that they can market it to the appropriate consumer. Because of this, they have their own very strict guidelines, which, it would seem, all books fall into. If the author is unable to fulfill this requirement (but the idea is strong enough) then they employ editors to do it for them. “Unification” seems to be the key, and with a little research this ‘inner temple secret’ can be easily unravelled.
If printed at 10 characters per inch there will be about 250 words per page, which translates as 35,000 to 80,000 roughly for a book with 140-320 pages double spaced. So, if you take as an example: 25 pages per chapter, with 250 words per page, and 12 chapters, (making 300 pages) it translates as 75,000 words. (with 6,250 words per chapter) - http://www.pwcwriters.org/penpoints4.htm
So, in a nutshell (which is probably where it belongs) that’s all there is to it (!). All that remains is to decide precisely what those seventy five thousand words should be. The common thought is that one’s opening paragraph should encapsulate the mood of the story. It should take the reader by the throat, sit them down and talk into their face. But therein lies the downfall of many a ‘bargain bin’ tale: “It was dark and raining” - no, too obvious. “I awoke from a dream” - too childish. “It hadn’t been his intention to drive to Nova Scotia…” - oh please, get to the point.
Oh well. Perhaps I shall start in the middle and work outwards in both directions. Watch this space.
Every so often, popular music culture undergoes a ‘sea change’. It seems to occur every ten years or so, and usually about half way through each decade. Arbitrarily speaking, It happened in 1977 when the Sex Pistols broke onto the scene with their snarling three chord, stripped down anthems of disaffected youth. It happened in 1967 when America embraced The Beatles, LSD, San Fransisco and Jimi Hendrix but in 1957 something very different happened.
There are many events that claim to have been the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and music historians will still argue to this day, but that is the whole point which I’ll come to in a moment. Events such as Ike Turner recording “Rocket 88” in March 1951, to the first ever rock concert (Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball) in Cleveland in March 1952, to Elvis Presley recording “That’s All Right Mama” in July 1954. But there is one single fact that all music historians agree on: the “Breakthrough”. The point at which rock ‘n’ roll exploded from being a teen fad with a cult following, into hugely successful mass market awareness and acceptance. That event happened in the first week of July 1955. That was when the song “Rock Around The Clock” performed by Bill Haley & The Comets - became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to ever reach the number 1 position in the US charts. However over here in England things were more complicated than that and British youth were still at the mercy of not only the archaic radio networks but also the simple fact of the lack of availability of the records.
The release, in 1955, of a feature film called The Blackboard Jungle which starred Sidney Poitier helped the Bill Haley record reach a new and eager audience in Britain, It was a tense, urban socio-documentary about a teacher and his class of teenagers and Bill Haley’s music was used in the film causing teenagers to jump from their seats and dance in the cinema. It was the first time they had probably heard anything like that, and naturally they associated it with the rebellion inherent in the films narrative, which suited them just fine. But even though this new and dangerous music managed to tap into the spirit of the moment, the band still had an image which was clean, respectable and in many ways like their parents. The stage was wide open for ‘one of their own kind’.
Elvis Presley had established an underground presence during 1956, and his earliest 45 r.p.m recordings from that time are much sought after by collectors (Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog, which again were featured in films doing the circuits at the time). However Elvis had to wait until 1957 to get his first UK number 1. On the week ending the 28th Jun 1957 he had his first UK number one hit with “All Shook Up” which was number one for 7 weeks. Not only did he capture the emotional mood of the teenagers of the day, he was stylish, he was arrogant but most of all he was sexy and he was young. But rock and roll ‘per se’ had effectively been around for a good twenty years or so under a different name. Before Elvis, it had been almost exclusively been played by black people and they called it ‘jump and jive’; ‘hollerin’ the blues’ or just simply: ‘rhythm and blues’. Bill Haley made the revolutionary decision to blend it with the songwriting style of white country music, and it was that unison that caused the uproar.
Prior to this, teenagers had been fed a diet of what The Guardian referred to as ‘Pre-Rock’: “Pre-rock was pure escapism, a cultural comfort blanket, and that’s what was needed. The world was broken; most people wanted to forget the immediate past and were terrified of the post-Hiroshima future. Instrumentals – Mantovani’s Moulin Rouge, Frank Chacksfield’s Limelight, Les Baxter’s Unchained Melody – worked as balm, lullabies for wrecked communities. They tucked a nation into bed while the new world was constructed outside its windows. As the foundations were placed for the new towns of Stevenage, Crawley and Basildon, the bucolic idyll of Donald Peers’s In a Shady Nook (By a Babbling Brook) played on the wireless.” And all of this was additionally and indeed directly due to Trade Union action.
Following the war, the British Musician’s Union placed an embargo on the United States musicians which prohibited them from performing or selling their records in this country. The ban lasted until the mid fifties but under it’s blanket lay a genre which effectively passed by almost without notice in Britain (save for a tightly knit community of enthusiasts) called: “Bebop”. British audiences were fed a diet of big band swing (courtesy of American troops being stationed here) right up to the sanitised, balladeers of the early fifties as though nothing had happened between the years of 1945 and 1955, but in the States very big things had been happening. The likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw may have ruled the roost in the dance halls, but after the show was over, American audiences wanted to chill out and the ‘supper club’ was the place to be. A small, intimate, bar which usually served food and featured a house band made up of (usually) musicians who had been playing earlier that same night. Such was the demand for these smaller ensembles that a huge number of them sprang up, and at the top of the pile was a young saxophone player from Kansas called Charlie Parker. Such was his overwhelming virtuosity as an improviser - he could sell out any venue he appeared at and he soon attracted a massive army of deeply dedicated followers.
Jazz music was not really considered as ‘specialist’ back then. It was all they had, it simply was the popular music of the day and it was huge. The artists of the time were the equivalent of today’s rock stars and enjoyed massive cult status. And in typical ‘rock and roll’ style, when Charlie Parker got his royalty cheques he went out and spent it on hard drugs and women. But, as history has shown when you live life like a rock star you die like a rock star. Parker died on March the 12th 1955 of a ridiculous combination of drug and alcohol related side effects and abuse. Two years later, in 1957, Parker’s long standing trumpet sideman: Miles Davis release an album called “Birth of the cool” which in many ways heralded the end of an era. In every tune you can hear a sense of ‘the end of the party’ as indeed it was. Parker was aware of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and in truth he didn’t know what else to do. But over in Britain, audiences had no idea of the impact that he had had on the music of the time. When American teens had been swooning to the ballads of Frank Sinatra and jiving to the swing of Duke Ellington, Parker gave them the equivalent of punk music with his loud, fast and ugly, jagged (lyric-less) small-band music. It divided audiences. Those that liked it, loved it, and those that didn’t understand it hated it. It was revolutionary. But in Britain it was irrelevant. Unheard and forgotten even after it had ended.
Although Bill Haley may have indeed synthesized the various musical elements that we now know of as sounding like a kind of music we call “rock and roll” he couldn’t escape the fact that, at the time, he looked like someone’s dad. Whereas Elvis was (as they’d say now) “one of us” - he was a teen rebel. He had the poise, the sound and the looks to carry off the innermost painful yearnings that all teenagers could identify with. But, prior to him a whole generation of musicians had been doing just the same, except in Britain they went from being the hottest, hippest thing to being the ‘music your parents listened to’ overnight. And in that context, Elvis Presley killed Jazz. Forever.
This weekend I have started work on tackling the rusty holes around the base of the camper van and it is the first time I have ever used epoxy resin body filler. It’s a fascinating example of ‘home chemistry’ which is a mystery and a joy to work with. Simply by mixing a white paste with a tiny amount of red paste, a bizarre chemical reaction causes the resulting pink paste to become as solid as metal in about four or five minutes. It also becomes extraordinarily hot in the process.
There is, however, something deeply and spiritually satisfying in being able to ‘smooth’ over otherwise ugly, jagged and awkward damage. Not so much in the act of simply filling, but in the ability to sand that area down and make as good as new, with a smooth surface. If only life had an equivalent compound: to restore, hide, make good, repair and smooth over all the bad bits.