Monday, 14 April 2014

The Desolation of Smaug

I watched The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night courtesy of iTunes and Apple TV.
As with every one of Peter Jackson's depictions of Middle Earth the setting, characterisation, acting and action are all first class.
Laketown in particular stands out as a beautifully realised location with it's medieval architecture and gothic moonlit rooftop sequences a real pleasure to experience. The classic orange flames set against the blue hue of the town at night looks every bit a painting that the finest of chiaroscuro painters would have been proud of.

For all it's style (the Smaug sequences toward the end are quite special) I was left, after two and a half hours, with a real fondness for the Orcs.
I just think they look stunning. Hulking great brutes with one thing and one thing only on their mind - death.
Azog, their leader, is a fantastic specimen. He must be 7 feet tall and just the stuff of nightmares. His son Bolg is similarly horrific. Between them and their endless hordes they pursue and terrorise the good guys at every turn.

I love the Tolkien stories and I love how Peter Jackson has turned such detailed works of literature in to something quite special on screen. I was just left feeling a bit "so what" after the credits rolled.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Short writing exercise - Leaving the House

Jonathan Blaze, Jon to his friends, was about to leave his home for the first time in nearly four years.
Am I really about to do this, he asked himself. Yes, you are, came the reply from deep inside his troubled mind.
Somewhere along the line he had developed a remarkably effective inner saint - inner demon relationship. The two would encourage, criticise, ridicule and ultimately define him during his solitude. Crucially though they would motivate him in to the most rudimentary of actions and crush him for the slightest fault.

Jon reached for his coat. It had hung there for nearly four years. It still fit. Just. In four years he'd gained a few pounds but not enough to warrant a new wardrobe. Not quite.
The handful of grocery drivers that pitched up every week had commented in passing that he was looking well. This was enough to convince him that he was doing alright. There was only the one mirror in the house and that was the shaving mirror in the bathroom.

The light of the morning sun shone through the colours in the door's window. It was bright for six in the morning. Perhaps too bright. Jon stepped up to the door and straightened his back. His feet together and his arms pressed firmly in to his side he raised his chin and took a deep breath.

"You're not capable," the inner demon muttered. "You're a sorry excuse for a man and you will fail."
That last word echoed. The word fail had haunted him for years. It defined him. I am a failure, he thought. That is why I'm here and in this situation.

Four years ago he'd been a success. A good father to his children, a good husband and a pretty damn good salesman. Sure his work had seen him stay away from home a little more than he'd liked - certainly a good deal more than Susy had liked - but he was good at it and it brought in good money. Very good money.
The family would holiday twice a year. Once in England for a week at August half term and two weeks abroad during the summer.
The year it happened they'd gone to Egypt. The best family holiday ever, officially. They'd not made it to August's half term.

The pain stabbed him straight between the eyes. The vision of the car in flames. The struggle. His inability to move. The blue lights...

I am a failure. Dammit, why must I torment myself like this. I'm not ready.
He was half way to removing his coat when a familiar voice chimed from beyond the front door. The sound of laughter. A child's laughter. The kind you just can't get enough of.
He continued to take his coat off and place it on the hook.
Pausing for a moment Jonathan Blaze shut his eyes and envisaged the demon sat atop his stoney perch. Laughing, chuckling. That awful titter that had kept him awake night after night. The demon was fading. As it faded so came the screams. The awful screams from another realm. The sounds of hell. That awful dull echo of hell's minions. The demon was visible but only just. It's arms waving, clawing at the air.

In a snap he opened his eyes and reached for the door handle. I will do this.
As the door creaked and the fresh morning air caught his face he squinted hard. The light was brighter than he'd expected. There were no children playing. There were no sounds of laughter. In fact there were no sounds at all save for the birds that lined the trees in his neighbour's garden.

That first step came very easily. The second even easier. Within a few short strides he was stood in his front porch. A smile drew itself across his face. His tired expression that had been etched in to his skin was slowly replaced. He took another step. And another.

For nearly four of his forty four years Jonathan Blaze had turned his back on the world. But not any more. Today all that changed. The inner saint was applauding him, loudly.
He allowed the early morning sun of Spring to warm his face. He hoped it would cement the smile. It felt good.
Pulling the door to behind him he stepped out in to the world again.

Thank you, he thought. Thank you.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Stephen King short story

I'm keen to maintain the momentum on my reading. Hemingway was a success and I'm gripped by the short story format.
Having read a handful of stories in as many days I thought I'd invest a little time in identifying an author and a style that perhaps I'd read more of.
It's not entirely scientific but my criteria essentially boiled down to drama, intensity, strong character, sex (!), setting. For me the genre isn't so important as I'll happily read a story set on Mars as much as I'll read something set in Middle Earth.

Stephen King's name fell out of the bottom of the process.
I'd read King when I was younger. Salem's Lot and The Dead Zone I read early on and then a handful of other novels in my early 20s. Since then I've read a bit of Clive Barker within the horror genre. In fact Barker's writing helped me to redefine horror. So much so that I really don't see King as that much of an horror author any more. An extremely effective author of dark and disturbing tales for sure, but Barker's gruesome focus on the fantastical, ancient beasts and human mutilation are on a different level.

I picked up King's A Face in the Crowd. A short story about an elderly loner (a common fear right there if ever there was one) who spends his evenings watching Baseball on TV.
On one such evening he identifies a familiar face in the crowd of the poorly attended ballpark. On TV this familiar face from the distant past. A face that belongs to somebody who is surely dead by now.
The next night the exact same thing happens. A different but equally as familiar face right there in the same seat. A few rows back behind the batter.

What King does here is very quickly builds a picture of this man's situation. He creates a character whom I care about. I feel his loneliness. His wife had died some years before and he has nobody else in the world.
Similar in some respects to Hemingway's old man out at sea on his skiff.
The gaps in between the defining points of this man's life are neatly filled with his little quirks and idiosyncrasies. His daily routine is oddly familiar such that when something extraordinary happens we are forced to sit up and take notice.

I look forward to seeing just how this short tale pans out.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A beautiful story well told

I finished Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
It's really a very special story. Beautifully constructed and beautifully told.

I suppose in reality I'd expected the ending to be a little different to the one that I'd wanted. As disappointed as I felt for the old man I have to confess I felt a tremendous warmth for him and his achievements at sea.
Much of how we feel about the outcome is reflected beautiful in the weeping boy. His friend and tutor had fought bravely to land the fish and then bravely to protect it. He leaves the experience with his head held high. A fish so large had never been seen in the harbour. The old man, our young boy's great friend and great mentor was indeed a great fisherman.

I'm left with a number of emotions. Firstly, I have tremendous admiration for Hemingway and his portrayal of the old sea dog. An old sea dog who had one last fight in him. An old sea dog who triumphed against the odds and for whom countless stories will be told to generations of budding fisherman to come.
Better still such stories will most likely be wildly embellished since the old man was alone at sea.

I have a real enthusiasm for short stories and a particular fondness for Hemingway's style. I very much hope that this isn't a one off and that his other stories are as captivating and beautifully told.

Thinking of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea at 4am

I woke at 4am this morning. Since it's Spring I sleep with the curtains open. The moon is around the other side of the house but there's enough light from other sources to pick out the shape of the trees in the garden.
I must have laid there for almost an hour before falling back to sleep.
In that time I watched the light improve and the detail in the trees and larger shrubs increase. It was a magical time.
I could hear the rain but it did little to dampen my mood.

I thought of several things - most of which escape me now.
Notably I thought of the old man in Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea. I've almost finished it and just now he's landed the Marlin and strapped it to the side of his skiff. The sharks are alert to the blood and as tired as the old man is he has the better of them.
I'll finish the story over a coffee on my break later. I care about that old man. I'd go so far as to say I feel for him. His every emotion, his hunger, his thirst, his desire and his need to land that mighty fish. I love the healthy respect he has for the fish. I love that he feels that the fish died with dignity. The "enemy below" was not so much the enemy as his brother.

The old man loves the sea. He respects her and all that live within her.
He is a long way from shore. His story is very much a tale of personal triumph against the odds. So far he is victorious. I hope that he succeeds and takes his rewards. A 1,500lb fish that will cut in to 1,000lb to sell at 30 cents a pound has significant value to the frail and destitute old man.

His companion, the young boy, is not with him. They have shared many a sea-faring adventure but not this one. For this one he is alone. The young boy must surely be eagerly awaiting the old man's return. He's not his son but the old man loves him as though he were his own and vice versa.

I've loved reading this story.
The main character is complex. He has a gentleness to him. A spiritual side and an extremely human side. His endearing love for Joe DiMaggio, the great Di Maggio, whom he admires so much is quite touching. That Di Maggio's father was himself a fisherman only strengthens his admiration for the legendary Yankee's baseball player.

Hemingway is a beautiful writer. His knowledge of his character and his subject is his strength.
I look forward to completing the story and moving on to another of his classics.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Short stories

I'm currently enjoying reading a range of short stories. I always wanted to rekindle my love of reading. It's been several years since I sat with a book and enjoyed it. The last one was probably Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park. A good book.

So I fired up the iPad and iBooks (I also use the Kindle app) and went in search of some short reads.
There's a ton of them out there and a lot are free. I picked up an MR James collection for 99p. His ghostly tales are wonderful and Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad stands out as a particularly chilling read.

Within a day or two my library collection has become quite large.
I've read a few now and love their style. The liberal use of dialogue intrigues me. In fact it appears to be crucial to the format of the short story. Keeps the momentum up and the reader both interested and in tune with the characters.

I'm currently reading Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It's beautifully written and extremely honest. I've wanted to read a Hemingway story for a while since his name crops up a great deal within the short story fraternities on the internet. His style is extremely accessible and his content thorough and well researched. I think it's fair to say this guy knew his subject and his characters intimately before he began to tell their story. There's a valuable lesson to be learned there, I'm sure.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Lunch folks

Sitting watching the world go by with my iPad and some lunch. I normally head for some secluded or relatively inactive spot to escape it all for that one hour a day that I can. But today I fancied seeing some life.
Tom Waits’ Closing Time is ticking over in the background as I type.
I confess I'm pretty relaxed right now.

There's a guy wandering around in front of me. He seems to be waiting for someone. Occasionally he'll look up at the buildings in the town. Quite inexplicably really. There's a notebook under his arm. An older bloke, possibly mid 60s, so not that old. Jeans, pink shirt, smart shoes. I'd love to think he was up to no good. Possibly waiting for somebody to go and share a whiskey with whilst they plot the assassination of some key official on the local town council.
In fact he looks the type. Shifty and uncomfortable being out in the open for too long. That said he's done nothing to disguise himself. The glasses are regular glasses. Not a tint in sight. No hat, no overcoat. Nothing. This guy doesn't fit the stereotype that's for sure.
Oh wait, his wife showed up. That's that then. Who knows what the notebook was for but I'm willing to bet they're off for coffee and lunch and to plan this week's bridge party.

A fat woman sits down beside me. Smiler. Large cream cake, large coffee. Happy. I'm convinced she’d be quite the looker if she could remove the numerous lumps from her face and separate her chin from her neck. You see that quite a lot. She’s probably the same age as me. Still, she's happy and there's a lot that can be said for that. Probably remarkably clever and witty, too.

Time passes with little to note and I'm forced to reluctantly pack up my things and head back to work.
The coffee was dreadful. Fortunately the slice of carrot cake was not.

Tom Waits is my saviour

"A voice soaked in gin."

Or so the saying goes.
I've fine tuned my musical tastes slowly over many years. I still love the thrash of guitars and drums but over time the hard rock requirements have subsided and given way to a more mellow and reflective taste.
Recently I picked up (downloaded) an album by Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Another by Leonard Cohen. A couple more by Trent Reznor and finally Tom Waits' Heart Attack and Vine.
It's the latter that gets played the most. So much that I added to it earlier with the 1973 release Closing Time.

It's different to Heart Attack but still a fine album. More Dylan than I'd expected. More country as well. But I like Dylan and I like country so it's all good.

I love Waits' voice. It's pure and yet edgy. Simple and yet capable of so much expression. His ability to almost change persona mid song is I can see something of a signature move. I love it.

I listen to music that is appropriate to my mood. I always have done. On a sunny day tearing down a road with the roof back I'm perhaps more inclined to listen to something with a bit of bounce or attitude. But I rarely do that and just now Tom Waits is defining my mood rather than vice versa.
I must say its a nice place to be.

Dealing with flashes of inspiration

If you have no ideas, no thoughts what must you do?
Well if your intention is to write and you are devoid of inspiration perhaps the only course of action is to step away from the keyboard. What possible good could come from trying to paint a picture without a vision, model or a subject?

The frustration is surely your own. If you have set aside some time to write - that is you have cleared your diary and allocated an hour or two for the sole purpose of writing - and yet your head is empty then writing anything will probably be a futile exercise. What possible meaning could anything have if you have no drive, no motivation or a single seed of inspiration.

But this kind of a writer's block grips me on a regular basis. I'm not a pro writer, nor do I wish to be. For me it is simply a means of expression. Something that I do for my own satisfaction.

My head is so full of the day and the effects of my "situation" that I rarely am able to completely purge the crap from my memory such that I have a blank canvas with which to play.

Perhaps there is some merit in simply closing the computer and doing something else. Stepping outside, enjoying the sunshine, cooking, driving, even bloody shopping. But what if I'm gripped by something as I'm doing any of these things and am unable to reflect the thought and save it for later consideration?

Actually this is something of a nonsense anyway since I'm far better at dealing with thoughts and inspiration the moment they emerge. If I'm stuck in traffic and suddenley the idea for a short 1000 word story occurs to me I will probably over process it in my mind to the point that it becomes a mush. When I do finally get to sit and write it up it will have lost its edge and appeal.

Short of sitting nailed to the desk and waiting for that lightning flash of inspiration to strike I'm not sure of the best approach. 

So I changed my approach.
Instead of relying on that happy chance of being in the right place at the right time to capture my thoughts I took the means with which to express with me.
On a daily basis I drift between iPad, iPhone, laptop and occasionally a chrome book. In each case I may be working on something specific or best suited to the device. At any time I may be in the office, in bed, in a cafe, travelling in the car or, well, anywhere. So it's important that I can quickly turn to something to write or narrate my thoughts.

On the iOS devices I installed an app called iA Writer. You can see it here:

It's fantastic. I'm using it right now and all that you have is the joy of the writing experience. On iPad it's a pleasure to use. I have an iPad case that props up such that I can sit it on my knee and type via the on-screen keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard. Whichever suits. On iPhone I generally narrate using the Siri option for microphone input when the on-screen keyboard is displayed. This option is pretty useful when I'm driving. Saves having to find somewhere to stop and I get to preserve the same conditions that led to my having the inspiration in the first place. I.e. The scenery whizzing past and the mundane process of driving in traffic.

On the laptop and chrome book I use a Chrome extension called Writebox. There are countless available so I just picked one with a clean interface and access to Dropbox. It's very good and highly recommended.

I use Dropbox to store documents as simple text files. Providing I don't get in a mess with synching my documents it all works beautifully.

Using this approach I now have many, many documents no longer than 500 words stored in my Dropbox account. Some of which I may well return to as inspiration but generally they served a purpose - to allow me to accurately reflect what was going through my mind at that time.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Random stuff

A writer’s block! Dammit.
Truth be told I'm really not sure what I wanted to write about here. I just opened up the writing app and presented myself with a blank page and keyboard.

Several thoughts and ideas for short stories have flashed through my mind in recent days. Some of those, the better ones, have found their way in to digital form. Some day I may well pick them up and see how far I can stretch them.

I watched with interest recently an audience with the author Stephen King. He’s clearly a prolific writer and somebody that may well be on most people’s list of favourite authors.
When asked whether he keeps notes he simply said no. In fact he went on to say that keeping notes was a pretty good way to destroy a good idea. I think I understood his point. I guess he'd rather take the seeds of a character or plot and explore it on-the-fly with words.

I like this approach. It sounds fraught with danger but if you're a good enough and confident enough writer perhaps it's the right approach.

As an artist who enjoys to sit and sketch all kinds of weird crap I often think that in order to fully realise my vision I should create the piece in a single sitting.
If I'm still trying to wrap up the sketch a day later then I'm most likely going to be in a different place. That is to say I'm thinking differently. The emotions that inspired my sitting down the previous day with a blank sheet and pens might well have been flipped on their head today. I can't possibly put myself in the same place. It would all seem terribly contrived. For this reason I make a useless freelancer at anything. I'm a terribly selfish artist. I only want to flesh out my own ideas. In fact I dare to say I'm probably arrogant enough not to accept anyone else's views or opinions on creativity.

To this point I've written around 350 words in little over 5 minutes right here in this blog post.
I'm still comfortable with the process of writing and reflecting my thoughts in this single entry. If I were to leave it I would change my viewpoint. Continuing the same piece would seem like an exercise in trying to splice together two entirely separate pieces of fabric.

For me the only way to write is to allow it to become a stream of consciousness. A la Joyce’s Ulysses. This is pretty much in keeping with my view on creativity in general. Capture the moment, the thought, the motivation or the inspiration with media. Anything else is a manipulation that serves to falsify or "make plastic" that which should be untouched. Sure, I'm a purist in many respects. But I do believe in this. I enjoy dabbling with Photoshop and I enjoy playing with the filters available in the iPhone camera settings / apps. But I couldn't take any of it seriously. I wouldn't for example draw a picture and then scan it in to Photoshop and have it look completely different.

Writing in this manner fascinates me.

I could probably write a couple of thousands words in one evening if I was in the right place mentally and could hold the vision.

I'm a huge fan of Jackson Pollock's life and art. Unusual perhaps to suggest that I'm a fan of somebody's life but in Pollock's case he was the purist of artists. Everything he set down on canvas, certainly in his latter "dripped" years, reflected his own passions, emotions and frustrations.
He once remarked that whilst he's in touch or in tune with the painting it's likely to succeed. But once he loses touch with it, it becomes a mess.

I hear this. That emotional attachment that we create between ourselves and our work needs to remain strong. For me it exists purely within a single "session". I find it hard to pick up again a day, week or months later. I tend to want to start over.

So this was an exercise in simply letting my thoughts flow through my hands and in to a blog entry. I've not re-read it or checked for grammatical / punctuation errors and I don't intend to. It's how I'm feeling right now. A direct reflection of my thoughts.

Thank you.